Most of us have come across the idea of school bullying through Western TV shows or movies. In Sri Lanka it’s something that’s generally considered not to be of concern. Still, when researched and questioned individually, many studying the issue have come across evidence which portrays a different reality. Not only is bullying an issue that many Sri Lankan students endure throughout their childhood, but also the awareness on this issue is significantly low. To shed some much-needed light on the matter, we asked some school leavers and students to share their own personal experiences with school bullying and how it impacted their lives. We also reached out about this issue with Hans Billimoria from The Grassrooted Trust, to generate more insight into the matter.
The prevalence of bullying
Billimoria explained that bullying can be learned behaviour. “What have our children learned in homes and schools that has led them to bully other children?” he questioned. He explained that bullies always pick on those with less perceived power and that we need to have uncomfortable conversations to encourage respectful and empathetic behaviour. When defining respect, Billimora highlighted that we need to move the concept beyond relationships of power to which it has been sadly reduced. “Ask prefects in Sri Lankan schools to distinguish bullying from their arsenal of approved and clandestine punishments to be visited upon fellow students, and many will struggle,” said Billimoria. He pointed out that they view respect as a power play, and empathy as weakness. “This is their learning. Not their fault.”
It’s not an accident, it’s one sided and on purpose
Mayuri, a former student from Kelaniya said that she’s been through physical bullying simply because she refused to fit in with the rest of the classmates. She was a silent kid and an ardent reader. “I didn’t have any crushes to talk about or any other interesting teenage stories to share with my classmates.” This paved the path for her classmates to bully and make fun of her whenever they got the chance. Mayuri recalls how her bag and other items got stolen and destroyed continuously and how students collectively jeered at her and made fun of her and tried to push her off the stairs as well. “Looking back it all seems so petty and ridiculous but this made it really difficult to make friends even as an adult. I developed chronic low self-esteem and when I do make friends, I become a people pleaser which isn’t healthy for me at all.” Mayuri stresses on the importance of accepting different personalities since childhood since it facilitates empathy and understanding.
Billimoria explained that by ignoring bullied children and responding with harmful tropes such as “It happens. Be a man. That’s the way the world is”, we are not giving them the skills to cope positively with bullies, which include being unafraid to reach out to a trusted adult that won’t judge them as weak. “Bullying is one sided. It is not a conflict. Bullying is on purpose. It is not an accident. Bullying is repetitive. It is not a one-off.” he said.
I’m not a robot, what they said and did are still there at the back of my mind.”
Nisandi Thilak, a school leaver from Colombo, said that since her primary grades, a group of students continuously bullied her. “They would tease me for my appearance, for the food I brought, for the way I hold my pencil, everything was a joke to them.” She explained how one girl would command the rest to hit her, scrape her and spit in her face. “It was the earliest memory of depression for me,” Nisandi said. “I would break down and they would laugh, mimic the way I cried and continue to taunt me.” She recalled how she always tried to stay at home back then and that as she grew up, school bullying upgraded according to the grade. She said that bullies would call her “dead body” and made an insulting song which they sang whenever she entered the classroom. “And as a child, unfortunately I took it to heart and it affected my confidence throughout my life.” Nisandi said. “I’m not a robot, what they said and did are still there at the back of my mind.”
Kaushi, a school leaver from Gampaha said that she didn’t know any better as she continuously got bullied for her complexion and weight throughout her school life. “At 17, I gaslighted myself into thinking that being fat and dark is my fault and that beauty standards around me defined who I was.” She explained that bullying becomes a wound that you don’t grow out of, grow around or grow through, you live with it, vacillating between two ends of a spectrum, where one is bouts of insecurity and the other is romanticising your flaws where neither are healthy options, because you will never know better.
Bullying made it really difficult to make friends even as an adult. I developed chronic low self-esteem”
Bullying affects both the perpetrator and the survivor
Nimeshi, an A/L student from Kadawatha, told us about a story where a dyslexic classmate of hers was bullied repeatedly simply for her behaviour and academic incompetency. “Students made fun of the way she talked and studied.” she said. She pointed out that the students were really ignorant and unaware of her condition and treated her like an alien. Nimeshi said that the worst situation is how even the teachers ignored the bullying. Instead they kept on blaming her parents for sending her to school where “normal” students are. “They didn’t teach the students about empathy and we regarded such people as weird and humiliating.” she said. Nimeshi herself explains how no one taught her to stand up for her in fear of getting bullied herself. The environment in the classroom was so toxic but unfortunately she realised everything much later.
“School bullying can and has harmed young minds. To ignore it is to do a disservice to both the perpetrator and the survivor.” said Billimoria. He mentioned that we probably normalise and rationalise bullying because we think this form of violence in schools prepares our children for the reality of living in the world as a resilient adult who can cope with, and stand up to the monsters. Billimoria highlighted that when we ignore the bully, we reinforce that behaviour, even justify it, and above all, we don’t contend with why they are violent and abusive and seek to hurt and humiliate another child.
Janith, a former school student shared a story where there was an upper class student who had a bad limp due to an accident from her childhood and how other students bullied her for that. “Students ran away when they saw her and called her names,” he said. He told us how they spread rumours about her saying that she had a contagious disease and how they would shout “germs!” at her whenever they saw her in the hallway. He explained how none of the teachers noticed it, or if they did, that they ignored it. He also added how he too used to bully her and regrets it so badly to this day. “I wish someone disciplined us,” Janith said. “What we did was clearly wrong and now I live with extreme remorse everyday.”
Adults normalising bullying
Some students shared with us how their teachers facilitated bullying as well and how they didn’t have any understanding or education on handling troubled or bullied students.
Chaneshi, a school leaver from Imbulgoda, recalls how in grade nine, a teacher would tell her fellow classmates that she had special needs. Chaneshi shared how the teacher told her parents that she needs psychiatric evaluation and made unnecessary and uneducated assumptions about her sexuality as well. “My grades were incredibly bad during that grade.” she said. Even today, whenever Chaneshi gets struck with self doubt, she wonders whether she was right. She has battled depression, unemployment and disability throughout her life.
Chaneshi explains how the teacher’s influence and perception towards her ruined her relationship with her classmates as well. “She managed to turn a number of students against me,” she said. “I was cornered to a point where some students didn’t even want to touch something that I touched and would walk away from me while looking at me as if I was junk.” Chaneshi explained how she didn’t have any friends in that class and how she once locked herself in the bathroom for almost half of the day. Chaneshi hopes that the country’s education system would install protocols or systems in place where they screen the teachers before they’re employed and even after employed, that they would be subjected to frequent monitoring to make sure that they do not impart anything other than wisdom and kindness.
Bullying is a hidden issue in Sri Lankan schools as well but is often ignored over the misconception that it doesn’t exist in Sri Lankan culture. With little to no anti-bullying policies or awareness programmes, this has been normalised and overlooked quite often by both students and elders. It’s high time to take prompt actions against these issues that have been swept under the rug. “School bullying can and has harmed young minds. Your child needs you,” said Billimoria.
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