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Adolescent experiences of school violence in Jordan: insights from GAGE Jordan qualitative researchers

GAGE is in the process of analysing the baseline data from in Jordan. The prevalence of violence in schools has surfaced as one of the most surprising and widespread findings, with gender differences being deeply marked. GAGE Director Nicola Jones spoke to Taghreed Alabbadi, Sarah Al Heiwidi, Qasem Shareef, Bara Al Hyasat and Kifah Banioweda – members of the Jordan qualitative research team to further understand the patterning of this violence and what change strategies are in place currently to curb it.

We would like to hear from you about what you learned about children’s experiences in school and the risks that they face from different types of violence.

[Kifah] We conducted individual interviews with children. A 16-year-old boy from Irbid said that he faced additional levels of violence because he was Syrian – and risked being beaten on the way to school. Jordanians would stop [Syrians] on the street and tease and taunt them, starting fights. One way to avoid this is by using transport to go to school. Yet transport costs money that the families don’t have, putting additional pressure on them to ensure the safety of their children.

 [Taghreed] Disabled students faced additional stigma – name calling – a formal of verbal violence.  Violence was ubiquitous – from teachers to students and vice versa. Teachers use verbal insults, and many reported witnessing teachers beating students with sticks. We also heard about male student violence against teachers – there was a family who got involved in a fight using sharp objects and sticks following a disagreement – the teacher was hospitalised. Student-teacher violence is caused by teachers refusing to give good grades, or not tolerating cheating by the student.

[Qasem] There is frustration amongst (some) Syrian students. There are two school shifts, one for Jordanians and one for Syrians. Some feel that learning opportunities in the first (Jordanian) shift are better – the teachers in second shift are less qualified, explain Syrian students. They also feel like strangers in their new schools, with new customs. This makes Syrian pupils particularly sensitive –they believe they are experiencing violence because they are Syrian – yet Jordanian students also experience violence.

[Sara] Violence was widespread amongst the adolescents we spoke to. One girl was being threatened with having to work as a prostitute – she was scared to tell her mother so would hide until the aggressor left.

The challenge with married girls is that they do not attend any form of formal education. Many of the divorced girls did not return to school either: because they don’t have much guidance on how to return to school and catch up on the work missed, and because the parents of other students do not want them there given their knowledge on certain topics – and the affect this might have because of the possible effect she might have on her peers.

Okay, so you’re starting to touch on some of the gender differences and experience of violence at school. Can you talk a bit more about that?

[Bara] There was a 12-year-old boy who faced violence in school – the teachers were using sticks and a hose covered with plastic tape. What I was struck by is by how accustomed he had become to the violence – he was being beaten 3-4 times a week for speaking, or being very playful, or raising his voice. It was so normal he had gotten used to it. He told us that the types of violence differ according to age – high school students are subject to different forms of violence than younger children. Many of them also experience violence at home from their parents – and they get used to it.

[Taghreed] Parents teach their kids that if somebody hits you should hit them back.

[Bara] And even amongst peers they are violent. It is something normal throughout their day at school.

Is it the same for boys as for girls?

[Bara] No. Boys experience more violence than girls. And male teachers are more likely to use corporal punishment.

What about in terms of the gender of the child? What were the findings?

[Kifah] The violence girls experience is different to that of boys – at schools and on the way to school. Girls worry about verbal abuse and harassment – which is also very important for the family and one of the reasons why girls drop out of school. But girls also mentioned being beaten by teachers – although boys seem to experience more severe beatings.

[Qasem] Sometimes though families tell their children stories to protect them – a strategy to encourage them to be careful and not talk to strangers – there are not many kidnapping cases for instance.

[Kifah] We saw this in Gaza camp – mothers fear for their daughters. They are wary of the lack of safety on the street – particularly when there are few people are around, like in the early morning – they cannot send the girls alone because of fear of (male) harassment and sexual abuse.

[Bara] In many cases it is the mother of the child who asks the teacher to hit the child if he misbehaves or has a low grade. This was very common for Syrian, Jordanian and Palestinian mothers – and a normalization of everyday violence.

 That is very interesting. Do you see differences at all between host communities and camp settings?

[Sara] Yes. We heard that Syrian refugees in camp settings felt there were no opportunities (e.g. for scholarships) whereas refugees in host communities have more than one programme that might help them achieve their goals – they have more knowledge and better access. It is a form of structural violence.

[Kifah] Yes, but we know that in terms of violence in schools, camp settings are more monitored because there is a lot of international organisations present. The children are better educated about their right to not be beaten and they know how to report instances of violence to Makani [UNICEF programme]. In host communities the children are more dispersed, more exposed to violence, and less knowledgeable about their rights.

 [Qasem] In Zaatari Camp Save the Children have an office and school, and this is against parents’ wishes – because everything hinges on students’ relationship with the teacher. The parents are saying they do not like the NGOs because they cannot talk with their children – which they feel is a new culture – beating children is normal in Syria and they do not want the beatings to stop in school.

Given that it seems that the experience of violence in schools and on the way to school is widespread, how do you think it is affecting children’s development? Their educational development, their psychosocial development, their voice and agency?

[Qasem] It is very bad in the long-term and in terms of future impact. The culture of silence – the one-way interaction, from teacher to student, because of the large class numbers, and without mutual student interaction. Silence is considered a good thing. Those who speak without permission fear that teachers may lower their   exam grades. There is no way of having good classes in this climate.

[Kifah] One of the children we spoke to had dropped out of school. He left school because of the violence – which he described as landfill – not safe for studying, only for beating: ‘if I do the mistake or not do the mistake, they will beat me. If someone beats me and goes to report I will beat him’ (sic). It is a cycle of violence.

[Taghreed] Girls had also left the school because of violence on the streets – from home to school – in the shape of harassment and name-calling from boys.

[Bara] It could affect their educational achievements because of low self-esteem – they won’t be confident enough to complete their education. And they won’t have the leadership or communication skills they need to express themselves and enable themselves to be leaders or to become what they want in the future.  This affects their emotional and mental health.

Do you think that it is the girls who are choosing to leave school or is it pressure from parents and siblings?

[Taghreed] Both. Parents – but also girls who decide to stop going to school, saying it is their choice because they don’t want to bring problems to their families.

 [Taghreed] It is true for the boys too. Families teach their kids to think ‘you are a man, you have to be strong, you have to be violent’ (sic). And they tell the girls, ‘you are weak, you have to walk next to the wall because you are a woman…’

[All] Women ‘don’t have a complete brain’

[Kifah] So as a woman, the belief is that you have a lesser intellectual capacity – and even your religious devotion is not wholesome (because women do not fast for a week in Ramadan) (*due to menstruation). Women fall short – physically and mentally.

 And it sounds like what you are saying that schools are not trained to counter that and or get people to think in a different way, that they are actually reinforcing that type of victimisation.

[Kifah] They enforce this narrative of women in schools. If girls go to school, girls must be bullied, your voice must not be heard. So we use a soft voice.

[Taghreed] Because of honour, because of the name of the girl and the honour of the family.

[Qasem] There are also no future opportunities. Unless you are good in school, there is no way to finish because you have no money, no scholarships, no opportunity to learn.  Most of the boys go to work early because it is the only way – that is why most of them want vocational training. It’s not just the violence at school that means they miss out on opportunities, but that it is compounded by the lack of future economic options.

 [Bara] The girls are taught to think violence is normal as is to be called bad names, ‘she is stupid, she can’t do this and the man is better than her’. It is concerning as she will likely have children – repeating this behaviour across generations.

[Kifah] And when you speak about the future with girls, both young and old, they say they have no say on whether to continue education – it depends on their parents. This impacts their mentality and self-esteem – it is gender-based discrimination.

In terms of the measures that are in place to try and tackle all these different forms of violence, what kinds of mechanisms do you think are working? Did you see anything in terms of the change strategies we’ve been talking about as part of GAGE?

[Sara] Yes. There was one girl from Zaatari camp who was talking about violence on the way to school and how this was affecting her family’s decision on whether she could continue to attend. She explained the school had employed several people to act as guards – they would remain in position until the girls had arrived. If there were any issues, they could report them to the guards. The guards were camp inhabitants – so were well versed in who might be causing problems. Like informal bodyguards around the school.

[Taghreed] There is also an organization which employs women to take the girls from their homes to school, via safe routes, both mornings and afternoons – to avoid issues with unsafe travel.

[Sara] Sympathetic teachers also matter. We spoke to a girl living with a disability. She mentioned her teachers and principal were very supportive – despite bullying from her classmates – and would work with her mother to ensure her needs were met. Yet the teachers placed the onus on the mother, noting that the school was not fit to accommodate the daughter, and that it was up to her to facilitate her daughter’s care.

 [Kifah] I would also like to speak about why girls are not attending Makani centres. Many mothers told us that they would rather send their daughters to Islamic centres because of the safety they provide – in line with (our) religion. Islamic centres have got more services, including assistance – and provide a safe space for girls that is acceptable from a religious point of view.

What are your recommendations going forward?

[Qasem] Students wish there was an open channel between the Ministry of Education and Jordanian and Syrian students in host communities and the camps.  There are occasional interactions between teachers and students, but students need to know that they can contact the Ministry directly if they witness or are victims to violence. The (violence) reporting mechanisms need to be strengthened and improved in terms of their breadth and reach.

[Kifah] In Palestine there is like a law that stipulates that any teacher who beats children will receive a warning after four offences – they will need to undergo training – not to mention that naming-and-shaming of teacher-offenders is also widespread. From personal experience it appears to be working.

[Qasem] Students think that most private and government schools prevent students bringing telephones into school because it enables them to film incidents of violence. The law states that corporal punishment is illegal – yet it continues to happen – hence why mobile phones are not allowed. But there are other forms of violence – including verbal – that are widespread.

[Sara] A recommendation would be for the police to be connected to school counsellors. And counsellors should be able to report instances of violence directly to police not to the Ministry of Education – that would make it have a bigger impact.

[Kifah] I would like to see a student committee in the Ministry of Education – that could report violence. The more children are aware of their rights, the more they will report instances

[Bara] Another recommendation is to conduct parent sessions to increase awareness of children’s rights and avoid violence and bullying. Also children’s sessions to raise awareness on rights in school and how to interact with other children, and with children living with disabilities specifically.

In the research you did on Palestinians in Gaza Camp, do you think that UNWRA schools were any different from the types of systems we have heard about thus far?

[Kifah] No. They all mentioned teacher violence. Girls said they did not experience beatings, but did experience verbal violence in UNWRA schools. Teachers would shout and accuse them of being ‘kaslaan’ (sic) – lazy. They said teachers were overall kind, but the quality of education was deficient and contingent on the family’s support (for the girls’ education). Many boys mentioned violence. They have the police station next store – the police are ubiquitous in stopping the boys jumping into the girls’ school.

You have all visited the UNICEF Makani integrated child and adolescent centres, which are an out-of-school initiative. Do you see any positive spill over effects from involvement in Makani, in terms of how children experience or respond to violence that they face, particularly in school?

[Sara] Makani participants had more knowledge on how to report violence – particularly in the camps.

Is reporting translating into action?

[Sara] It is unclear. In the informal tented settlements there is no reporting at all. In camps we are aware that participants know their rights – but cannot draw trends in terms of reporting.

 [Qasem] You can see big differences between Makani and non-Makani students. They have information about what to do if they witness or are victims of violence, information about life skills that is not typica in government schools. Interactive teaching methods. There is a substantial difference between those who go to Makani (centres) and those who do not have the chance to do so.

[Bara] They have higher self-esteem and self-confidence – which affects how they stand up for themselves and speak about their rights.

[Sara] One of our participants had been harassed and followed by an older man in a car and following the information she had received from Makani and Save the Children, she rang her parents from the first shop she could enter, and shouted that she had a rock – these things, even if small, affected her reaction, with a deep subsequent and positive impact.

[Kifah] Another girl told me that due to Makani teaching methods – individual questions to individual students – she is now confident, responding to questions in school – and is performing very well, at the top of her class. Makani’s individual focus has enabled her to perform well.

[Taghreed] On the negative side, I also spoke to a girl, married at 15, who has had 3 miscarriages. She is now 5 months pregnant. She attended Makani prior to her marriage but said they did not mention issues of honour.

It is definitely complicated. It sounds like Makani can be one good input in supporting change on violence against children and adolescents but there still needs to be more inputs to change the social norms and then some of the parents’ attitudes that normalise violence.