Thirty percent of the population can't read or write, so making children attend school is still the biggest priority for parents, teachers and the government in Nepal. Then there are problems like high dropout rate, an increasing gap between private and public schools, a lack of classroom resources, shortage of trained teachers, and sexual harassment.
School bullying comes way down in the list of problems, although all indications are that there is an epidemic of abuse of school children by fellow students. Most schools don't even acknowledge the problem exists.
"When we approach schools and request them to introduce anti-bullying policies, the principals and teachers become very defensive and tell us it does not happen in their schools, they are afraid that if they admit to bullying, their reputation will be damaged," says Niti Rana, chairperson of Rakshya Nepal which is dedicated exclusively to minimising the effects of bullying.
Children are also reluctant to admit to bullying to teachers or parents because they are scared of the consequences or have no faith that it would make things better. This secrecy surrounding bullying makes it very hard to determine the frequency, assess the severity and push for timely intervention.
The responsibility then falls on teachers and parents to pick up on signs that their children might be being bullied, or are bullying others. Psychologists and child development experts agree that children who are bullied are usually physically fragile, weak in academics, shy, don't speak up in class, have lower self esteem or a combination of these factors.
Hima Pradhan, a student counsellor at a school in Kathmandu, says potential bullies can also be identified and begin to display signs starting from first grade. She explains, "Children who are larger and stronger than rest of their classmates when they are six or seven years old are most likely to become bullies in their teenage years, they start with innocent acts like pinching their friends and then move on to more violent and hurtful activities."
Among girls there is a greater tendency to isolate and exclude the victim by not talking or playing with her. Boys, on the other hand, are more likely to hit or push the victim while in the football grounds or toilets. Name calling ("fat", "ugly", "dark", "stupid"), ragging victims to complete assignments, stealing possessions, or forcefully pairing them with someone of the opposite sex are also common bully behaviours.
Ganga Pathak, chief psychologist at the National Institute of Psychology in Baneshwor, says that despite warning signs, detecting that a child is being bullied is still tricky. She explains, "We find that many teenagers who come for counselling because of their aggressive, violent behaviours or because of depression are actually victims of bullying and their anger and depression is only an external expression of their frustration. Many younger children don't even display these outward emotions, so it's hard for parents and teachers to know what's wrong."
While intervention by parents and teachers helps in the short term, empowering the children is a better way to deal with bullying. Smriti Ghimire at Ankur Counselling Centre says, "We try to build assertiveness among children who are bullied and teach them how to protect themselves. We also conduct workshops which help boost their self-esteem. These skills are far more beneficial for children in the long run."
Bullying is often dismissed as part of growing up, and the focus is completely on students getting good grades or being the best athletes. Both Pathak and Ghimire say attitudes of urban parents and schools are slowly changing and they are paying more attention to children's social-emotional well being.
Rana who is the first Nepali to research bullying points to the apathy shown by schools as the biggest hurdle: "Schools don't want to spend their already limited resources on something they don't consider a serious enough issue. But even easy and inexpensive measures like including an anti-bullying policy in the student handbook, adding a section on school bullying in teacher training manuals, starting an anti-bullying week campaign to raise awareness will go a long way in improving students' well being."
Pathak goes a step further and recommends mandatory orientation programs for new students in every school where they are taught what bullying is, its consequences and who to go for help. And adds, "Typically hostels have a post called 'discipline in charge' who is usually someone students are scared of and avoid. Schools should get rid of this position and hire trained counsellors instead. Even parents need to play an active role and should talk to their children about bullying at the beginning of the school year."
The Department of Education has no policies on school bullying and is completely silent about the issue. Rana's suggestion: "The government could start by finding a Nepali term for the word bullying. At the moment we don't even know what to call it in Nepali."
A least bit different
For 20 years, I thought I was the problem. I blamed myself for the name calling, the physical abuse, for being friendless. But today after all these years, I can talk openly and honestly about bullying. I went to St Xavier's, an all boys school where classmates taunted me for being different. But I believe people who bully usually have problems within their family or have been bullied at some point in their lives. It's a vicious circle.
I consider myself lucky. I came from a privileged family background and had a very strong support system. Usually boys tend not to share their emotions with their parents, but I was extremely close with my parents and siblings and they stood by me throughout those rough years.
In hindsight, I can say that my experience with bullying has gotten me to the position where I am today. Since I was already 'different', I was free to experiment with new and unusual fields. I chose a profession like fashion designing and have made a name for myself. In the end, my life has turned out to be positive.
I wanted to show the documentary Bully to children and teachers in Nepal because the experience of being bullied cuts across geography, race and class. The pain and hurt is the same. And although I am not an expert, I want to tell parents with children who have been bullied to keep communication channels open and tackle the issue as early as possible.
Prabal Gurung is a Nepali American fashion designer based in New York. On a visit to Nepal a month ago he organised the screening of the new documentary, Bully, at Rato Bangala School.
The film released in US theatres on 30 March.