The past few weeks in the Maldives have been grim, to say the least. The three suicides (maybe more? I may have missed some. And one of them maybe not a suicide – but I won’t get into that) and countless incidents of bullying, harassment and abuse have made the atmosphere in the country much more depressing than usual. Or at least that’s how it seems from the way I see it.

The good thing is that people are now starting to talk a lot more about issues of bullying, depression, mental health and suicide. Not that these problems weren’t talked about before; it’s just that now, it’s happening a lot more. So I too have decided to weigh in on everything that has been happening.

I realise that these are delicate issues, and I don’t want to come off as insensitive. I just want to get my thoughts out there.

So anyway…

Bullying

Let’s start by unpacking this term.

The Google definition of “using superior strength to influence or intimidate someone” doesn’t quite cut it. I would include consistent, repeated aggressive behaviour in the definition as well.

When I was in primary school (not in Maldives), we were taught that there are four forms of bullying: physical abuse, verbal abuse, threatening, and neglect. The last two are interesting because they turn a non-action into an action. And I think it is important to keep in mind that there really doesn’t have to be any outward display of what we would normally consider “abuse” for any given behaviour to actually be abuse. Also, threatening and neglect can be lumped together into psychological abuse, although it wasn’t talked about that way when I was in school.

All these forms of bullying take place in the Maldives. Unfortunately, that is something I can guarantee is 100% true, despite having very little direct evidence. What’s also true is that everyone has an opinion on how we should deal with the problem (or at the very least, people acknowledge that the problem is indeed a problem).

So far, most of the suggestions I have seen are solutions looking for problems, that is, solutions for dealing with the problem after it has occurred. Not that this is a bad thing; I just think it’s more important to have some preventative measures in place. To be fair, many people have pointed this out already, but even most of them fail to go beyond the school, which is what I will be trying to do.

So let’s start from there and see where we get to.

Schools

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I would question the intelligence and sanity of anyone who says that schools do not play a role in the prevention of bullying.  The fact that children spend most of their days in schools kind of suggests that they (the schools) would have some kind of influence on the children’s behaviour.

So what are the schools doing? Not much, apparently.

From what I know, most schools have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to bullying (or something along those lines), but apparently this is usually nothing more than lip service, and they don’t do much to enforce it. Case in point, the school saying “yes, we’ll look into it” after a girl attempted suicide because she had been bullied.

So what can schools do? Simple – what they are built to do: education. I know there are some programs in place which are designed to raise awareness about the issues of bullying, but evidently, they are not working. And while I can’t point out where these programs are going wrong (having never seen how they are implemented), I can make some suggestions that would help to make them more effective:

  • Start when they’re young – Anyone who wants to indoctrinate people into believing anything know that you have to start when they are young. Except we’re not talking about a religious or political ideology here; we’re talking about being a decent human being. It’s as simple as the golden rule (“do to others what you would have done to you”) and the corresponding silver rule (“do not do to others what you would not have done to you”). Many people are surprised by children’s seemingly advanced understandings of fairness and justice (and hypocrisy). It’s there; we just need to strengthen it.
  • Make it pervasive – Skills (yes, skills) like sharing, getting along, teamwork, compassion and sympathy should be just as much a part of the curriculum as reading and writing, and should be taught as such. There doesn’t have to be a separate subject for each one, but it should be embedded within the other subjects somehow. This probably happens to an extent already.
  • Make it consistent – I’m talking about delivery and application. Messages should be consistent (people, including children, know double standards when they see one), and the application of those messages, for example, the actual enforcement of a zero tolerance policy, should also be consistent.

All that is relatively easy. What’s harder is establishing connections with families (which I’ll get to eventually) to ensure that everyone is on the same page.

That brings me to my next point. So far I’ve been talking about schools as though they are some kind of entity that has its own consciousness. Obviously this is not true; they’re inhabited by people. So let’s talk about some of those people.

Teachers

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A teacher is the medium through which a curriculum is delivered and through which policies are implemented. Teachers already have their own biases which they would ideally try to keep out of the classroom, so things can go really bad if a teacher’s attitude towards bulling is one that allows bullying to continue.

I would, however, like to point out that there is nothing wrong with the belief that “bullying is good for children because it helps them to toughen up” (or anything along those lines). In fact, I think it’s a perfectly valid belief with a certain amount of truth to it. However, a single belief can give rise to very different actions.

One teacher who believes bullying is good, may use bullying as an opportunity to teach a student how to deal with adversity and to develop resilience (on top of finding the cause for the bullying and trying to prevent it from happening in the future). Another teacher who believes the same thing might leave the student to their own devices, passively condoning the bullying and making things worse for them.

What I’m saying is that it’s the way teachers interpret their attitudes which makes the difference. And this is what school policy and teacher training have to take into account. The ministry of education is constantly showing off pictures of professional development meetings. I wonder how much attention they give to this…

One last thing about teachers before moving on. There has to be some kind of accountability. If a teacher does not take reasonable measures to stop bullying, there should be consequences. Otherwise, there cannot be justice for the victims of bullying and their families. Systems which deal with this sort of thing have to be in place at the school level as well as at the government level.

Now let’s talk about some of the other people in students’ lives.

Family

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All students, usually without knowing it, are their families’ ambassadors to their schools. If there is a problem somewhere in the family, the student will take that baggage into the school with them. How they display this baggage, and how prominently it is displayed depends on the student. But the baggage is always there.

When it comes to bullying, the funny thing is that home lives which are completely different can give rise to the thing. A kid from an abusive family might bully others because they think it’s normal/acceptable. A kid from a family of pushovers might bully others if they don’t get their way. A kid from a neglectful family might bully others for attention and validation. And a kid without a (traditional) family might bully others because they haven’t had any authority figures in their life.

So what can families do? I want to say “be good”, but that’s much easier said than done. Besides, we can’t put the blame entirely on the family. There are reasons that they are the way they are, which brings me to my next point:

Society

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People do not exist in a vacuum. People’s attitudes are shaped by societal attitudes, and their actions reflect what society deems to be acceptable. What does that mean in the Maldives? Well, let’s look at two small societal attitudes which both have huge implications.

Conformity Culture

In Maldivian society, any kind of difference (and therefore anyone who displays any kind of difference) is seen as worthy of derision. And when I say “difference”, I’m mean it terms of in-group/out-group, which is a pretty strong mentality that most Maldivians have. Consider the following:

  • “Oh, you’re a female? That means it’s ok to harass you”
  • “Oh, you don’t wear burugaa? That means it’s ok to treat you like a whore”
  • “Oh, you’re from Bangladesh? That means it’s ok to treat you like an animal”
  • “Oh, you support X political party? That means it’s ok to spread rumours about you”
  • “Oh, you’re an atheist? That means it’s ok to kill you”
  • “Oh, you’re a tourist? That means it’s ok to mock you under my breath”
  • “Oh, you’re from Raajjethere? That means it’s ok to be condescending towards you”

No one actually says this with their mouths, but Maldivians have collectively decided that this kind of thinking is ok, resulting in plenty of people it saying it through their actions. So is it any surprise really when we see this same thinking playing out in schools?

One-upmanship Culture

This next aspect of Maldivian culture is kind of ironic. We want everyone to be the same, but at the same time we want to be better than them. This would be fine if we weren’t so “by-all-means- necessary” about it. What I mean is that Maldivians will do whatever it takes to put themselves in the superior position. If someone gets hurt, then so be it.

I can’t say exactly why Maldivians are like this, but it may have something to do with everyone always being in each other’s business. Once again, it really shouldn’t be a surprise when the results of this cultural attitude are seen in schools. After all, what better way is there to show your superiority to someone than by bullying them?

Putting it All Together

Now that we have seen the factors which contribute to the bullying epidemic, we have to try to make sense of them all. The Reason model (also known as the Swiss cheese model – you’ll soon see why) is used to provide a conceptual framework for accident investigation and risk management. But it works just as well for everything we’ve just talked about. To understand how it works, you just need to know four things:

  • Hazards lead to losses
  • Barriers are in place to prevent the hazards from leading to losses
  • Sometimes the barriers are weak and have holes in them
  • When the holes line up, losses will be incurred

Here’s a picture if that still doesn’t make sense (click for full size):

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Note that the barriers are not meant to be a sequence. You could place any barrier in any position and it would still work.

Also note that this isn’t necessarily complete. More barriers could be added before the bullying, and you could also include “containment”, which are barriers in place after the bullying to prevent any further effects like mental health problems.

When everything is put together this way, it becomes clear that solving this problem is no easy task. And as much as we would like to, there is no single person to whom we can assign blame. If anything, everyone is at fault because everyone is a part of at least one of those barriers. But this also means that everyone can play a role in fixing this problem. It’s cliché, but it’s true: you’re either a part of the problem or a part of the solution.

Conclusion

I know that I haven’t even scratched the surface of this whole bullying issue. But hopefully I’ve presented some new ideas that can get people thinking about different ways to look at the issue. School bullying does not begin and end in schools. There is a gigantic web of interrelated forces at play for every incident of bullying that occurs. Schools, families, the government, and all the individuals that make up greater society have a role to play in preventing bullying. And even if we can’t eradicate bullying completely, by addressing its causes, we would at least be one step closer to wiping out some of the other ills that plague the Maldivian society today.

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