Feeling safe in school: A right for all children

While important steps have been made to protect children worldwide, we must acknowledge and prioritise the work left
to do.

By Nahedeh Eqdam and Emma Symonds, AKF(Afghanistan)
1 June 2018

The 1st of June marks International Day for Protection of Children (known as Children’s Day in some countries). While it is a day to celebrate the progress that has been made to protect children worldwide due to the work of institutions, governments and NGOs with the support of tools such as the UNCRC and Child Protection Minimum Standards, it is also a day to acknowledge and prioritise the work left to do. Currently between 80% – 93% of children globally suffer some form of physical punishment in their homes, which still goes largely unreported.

STAGES (Steps Towards Afghan Girls’ Education Success) is a UKAID funded consortium project led by the Aga Khan Foundation and implemented by AKF, Save the Children, CARE, CRS, Aga Khan Education Services and AEPO in 16 provinces of Afghanistan. STAGES establishes community based education (CBE) classes in rural communities which are far away from formal schools in order to improve access to education, particularly for girls. In addition, STAGES works to improve learning conditions and the school environment in formal schools through teacher training and mentoring, school improvement projects and providing learning materials. In particular, the consortium works to strengthen education and community practices on child protection to ensure children’s safety and improve community based protection mechanisms.

STAGES supported teachers are trained on child protection and strategies to reduce physical punishment and ensure a respectful and child-friendly classroom environment. Shuras (school management councils) are also trained on child protection and child rights, with a focus on reducing physical punishment against children and reducing labour and chore burdens preventing children from regularly attending school.

Research conducted in STAGES communities highlights the gendered dynamics of corporal punishment in the classroom. Boys seem to bear the brunt of most physical and verbal punishment by teachers, being perceived as naughtier and more difficult to control than girls. In contrast, girls face more abuse on the way to and from school, being subject to verbal and physical harassment from boys and men.

However, qualitative evidence indicated that after four years of the project’s interventions, physical punishment and verbal abuse inside the classroom had reduced. Teachers were using more non-violent forms of discipline including assigning more homework to misbehaving children, reasoning with them or sending them out of the classroom. Interviewees attributed this change to the training local shuras and teachers received on positive discipline methods, child protection, child rights and the disadvantages of corporal punishment. Shuras have also been effective in reducing harassment of girls on the journey to and from school by speaking to the perpetrators or their families and establishing local protection mechanisms such as accompanying girls to school.

The situation for children across Afghanistan looks bleak when looking at general statistics and situational reports, however further analysis into the practices of each province can highlight progress. Evidence from STAGES has shown that through regular dialogue, awareness raising and training behaviour change is possible when built on a relationship of trust. STAGES I qualitative data demonstrates that when shuras regularly visit classes, engage in dialogue with students about teacher conduct and discuss child protection issues with teachers, this can have a positive impact on reducing school based violence. The research also highlights the essential role of female shura members in listening to the concerns of girls and working together with male shura members to develop solutions.

A great deal of work still needs to be done to encourage a broader cultural shift around how children are perceived and treated. One recommendation when tackling school-based violence in Afghanistan is to engage different stakeholders, including children themselves, teachers, shura members, community elders and parents, so that everyone is accountable to finding solutions to child protection issues. Given the significant impact of shuras in addressing issues at the community level, cross-learning between shuras on best practices is also needed. In addition to teacher and shura training, child-friendly visual materials on child rights and reporting mechanisms are needed in schools or community centres. Children must also be taught how to speak up about their concerns, and shown that their concerns will be listened and responded to.

It is important to ensure child safeguarding and child protection concepts are mainstreamed across schools in Afghanistan through a collaborative effort between government and non-government stakeholders. Going forward, programmes tackling child protection and education issues in Afghanistan need to develop protection mechanisms for schools and establish referral pathways to link schools and communities to CPAN (the national child protection action network). At the same time, it is important to note that the approach to linking communities with official referral pathways needs to consider Do No Harm principles, given the potential for serious backlash against children who are referred. Overall, a short-term but in-depth investment in school staff capacity will yield more positive long term results. Meaningful work tailored to the local context will foster attitude and behaviour changes that lead to a reduced level of harm facing children and uphold their rights to be protected.

STAGES is a UKAID funded project implemented by a consortium of partners including the Aga Khan Foundation, CARE International, Save the Children, CRS, Aga Khan Education Services and Afghan Education Production Organisation.

STAGES is funded with UK aid from the UK government.