Anti-bullying laws at school, workplace is a long overdue
Samin, a tenth-grade student died on 26 June 2021 following a two-year battle with Anorexia Nervosa (an eating disorder). Meritorious and sporty Samin suddenly started gaining weight when he was in sixth-grade. In eight-grade, he gained 93 KG. It changed everything. Samin became a target of repeated school bullying (body shaming) perpetrated by his friends, teachers, staff and fellow students. To escape from bullying behaviour, Samin stopped eating and started exercising in his room. Unfortunately, his family failed to recognise that he developed an eating disorder. Samin continued losing weight and ended up with 36 KG when he died. The death of Samin reminds us how school bullying is widespread and severe in Bangladesh.
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), 23 per cent of students are victims of school bullying in Bangladesh. Last year, a ninth-grade student committed suicide after she was bullied by her teachers in one of the elite schools in Bangladesh. However, there are hundreds of thousands of students going through serious physical and mental health problems including depression, anxiety, loneliness, and feeling unwanted because of bullying at schools. Their stories remain untold and unheard.
Academic research shows that bullying at school has structural roots in many societies and policies and laws are needed to address these long-standing issues. In her book Bully Society, Jesse Klein showed how peer groups in schools, colleges, work, neighbours, family members, friends and economic and social organisations continuously enhance the bullying behaviour in American society. She explained that rigid social structures built on economic and social sources of capital create school cultures in a way that support, condone and even encourage bullying behaviour in a schoolyard.
Whereas Charles Derber and Yale Magrass claimed in their book 'Bully Nation' that, bullying is a structural problem arising from systems organised around steep power hierarchies; from the halls of the Pentagon, Congress and corporate offices to the classrooms and playing fields in America. A system of organised corporations, governments and military institutions have created a culture where bullying behaviour is seen as natural and just.
As a Bangladeshi, I also witnessed bullying in educational institutions. Many of my family members (including myself), friends and colleagues experienced bullying at school, college and university in the name of merit, class, status, skin colour and religious beliefs. One of my cousins was named Kali because of her skin colour. Another cousin was called Bokri because he was a little timid. Some of my Hindu friends were named Malu by their class teachers and classmates. Their parents overlooked their sufferings. But they could not! Even today, many years later, they remember the days, months and persons who bullied them.
Historically, we know that Bangladesh is a hierarchical and polarised society where people fundamentally believe that school is a 'sacred place' and since 'schoolteachers are respectable persons, therefore, they are always right'. Believing in such culturally and religiously constructed notions, most parents in Bangladesh are reluctant to discuss bullying at schools. Instead, they blame their children for wrongdoing which further deteriorates the physical and mental health of the victims.
Many parents, school teachers and policymakers also normalise school bullying by considering it as a part of the normal development of an adolescent. Social scientists, academic researchers and clinical psychologists strongly condemn such normalisation and warn of the severe consequences of school bullying which we have observed in Bangladesh and other Asian countries like India and Pakistan.
In Bangladesh garment factories, we have observed that managers and supervisors use their cultural norms and ideologies to bully (shouting, scolding, humiliating and throwing things) the workers. Many women workers told us that often they were forced to become 'Morga' whenever they failed to produce their given targets. One of them said that she preferred to die than being bullied by the line supervisors. Factory managers and supervisors, however, justified their bullying behaviour in the name of performance measurement. "If we politely behave with workers, then they will be dancing on our heads", a manager said. In fact, a few of the line supervisors told us that "It is their right to bully the workers" because workers are poor, less educated and come from villages.
Therefore, economically and socially workers always reside beneath the supervisors and managers in garment factories. Surprisingly, factory owners who claimed to come from a reputed family and completed their higher education from the UK and American universities supported the systematic and structural bullying behaviour in garment factories. One of them told us "Workers do not belong to a royal family like your Queen that we must respect them. If they fail to produce the targets, managers will scold them. Pure and simply". In this process, bullying behaviour is institutionalised in the Bangladesh garments industry through social structure and cultural norms.
Sadly, Bangladesh does not have any anti-bullying laws or policies at schools, colleges and universities, even after the 50 years of independence. Three million people sacrificed their lives in 1971 to liberate the people of Bangladesh from the systematic and institutional oppression of Pakistanis. No government has taken any initiative to introduce a law to tackle school bullying which is endemic in Bangladesh.
Without a strong anti-bullying law, the normalisation of school and workplace bullying cannot be prevented. Take the example of the Philippines. Bullying was extreme in the Philippines' schools and colleges. To eradicate school bullying, the Government of the Philippines introduced the anti-bullying act in 2013. And it is working as reports shows that school bullying has significantly been reduced in recent years. Creating awareness among teachers, students, parents, friends, colleagues, policymakers and wider society about the negative impact of bullying behaviour is equally important to tackle a pandemic like bullying behaviour at school, workplace and elsewhere in society.
Hence, introducing an anti-bullying law without delay is a must to prevent bullying behaviour at schools and workplaces in Bangladesh.
Dr Md Shoaib Ahmed, Lecturer in Accounting, University of Essex, UK