Children living in crisis and conflict settings face many barriers to learning. Their schools may have been damaged or destroyed due to conflict, their teachers may have relocated to new areas, or perhaps they are dealing with the trauma of losing someone they love. While schools can provide children a stable and welcoming environment to help them cope with the instability, they can also be the breeding ground for peer violence.

Peer violence is most common among children aged 10 and older, in community settings between acquaintances and strangers. It includes bullying and physical assault with or without weapons (such as guns and knives), and may involve gang violence. Bullying involves repeated physical, psychological, or social harm, and often takes place in schools and other settings where children gather, as well as online. Peer violence is a form of school-related gender-based violence (SRGBV), and it is often rooted in wider structural issues, social norms, and deep-rooted beliefs and behaviors that shape gender and authority. Research shows that children have different experiences of peer violence based on their gender identity, country, and context. Concepts of masculinity and a desire to demonstrate power and control over others are often at the root of men’s perpetration of bullying.

Research shows that children in conflict and crisis settings are often at a higher risk for experiencing peer violence in a school setting.

  • It is not uncommon for violence in the community to spill over into schools. Research shows that children who have witnessed violence are at an increased risk of experiencing bullying or becoming a perpetrator of sexual violence.
  • Fewer teachers and crowded, mixed classrooms make it harder for adults to supervise and intervene when violence occurs.
  • Teachers too often rely on physical forms of punishment to maintain control, further enforcing the norms that promote violence as a form of negotiation.
  • Additionally, there are often high levels of family disintegration and a breakdown of support systems in crisis and conflict settings. A lack of trusted adult figures may lead to students being afraid or hesitant to report bullying or other violence at school.
  • Finally, children who are orphans or refugees are at a higher risk of discrimination, harassment, and bullying in the classroom.

The long-lasting negative impacts of school violence are clear: Evidence shows that victims of school bullying are at increased risk of low self esteem, depression, and anxiety, as well as lower wealth and social-relationship outcomes in adulthood. In addition to the negative impacts on children’s health and well-being, peer violence can hinder children’s ability to learn and excel academically. A recent study conducted by researchers at Texas A&M, as discussed in this webcast, found that bullying was one of the key drivers that lower academic performance. In Botswana, students who experience bullying scored lower than those who are not bullied by between 14 and 32 points on international science, math, and reading tests; in South Africa, students who are bullied score 25 points less than those who are not bullied, corresponding to a 6 percent decrease in reading scores. Bullying has also been linked to a lack of motivation, absenteeism, and drop-out. Recent reports have documented how Syrian refugee children enrolled in school have encountered issues with harassment and bullying, which has lead to their families removing them.

While we have clear evidence that bullying negatively affects education outcomes in some countries, there is still a lack of data on youth violence and bullying in crisis and conflict settings. In humanitarian settings, most studies have focused on war-related violence, such as children being attacked by armed forces or physically injured with weapons, or physical abuse against children within the context of family or intimate partner relationships. Within the learning environment, knowing the full scope of the problem is critical, so that effective programs can be designed.

How can we do this? First, we need to collect more data. One approach would be to consider adding peer-to-peer violence indicators to your project, like those recommended by ECCN and as informed by USAID’s Conceptual Framework for Measuring SRGBV. You may also consider learning more about the specific risks to safer learning in the school environment using ECCN’s Safe Learning Environment Assessment Toolkit.

We may also turn to projects that seek to overcome peer-to-peer violence, support their evaluations, and learn from their promising practices. For example, DAI, also discussed in this webcast, is implementing Asegurando la Educación (Asegurando) in Honduras with funding from USAID. Asegurando works at a systems level (i.e. with all relevant actors from students to central government) to prevent and address all forms of school-based violence, including peer-to-peer violence and bullying–either physical, emotional or cyber. The lack of reliable and up-to-date data is a challenge that the project is addressing by strengthening the capacity of schools, the Ministry of Education (MoE) and other education authorities to identify the types and intensity of violence and formulate more informed strategies.

Asegurando’s systems approach includes strategies that connect key stakeholders. For example, the project is working with the IDB and the MoE in improving an existing guide for schools to refer and respond to case of violence by making it evidence-based and user-friendly for teachers. The project is creating connections between schools and their surrounding communities so teachers know what resources exist in the community. Subsequently, the project will publish the guide and provide assistance to the MoE to expand nationwide.

Speaking about teachers and administrators, Asegurando is building their capacity to develop safer learning environments through “Docentes por la Paz,” a professional development program based on the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE) Teachers in Crisis Context framework, which uses USAID’s Doorways content. In this program, participants learn to apply a variety of techniques—from conflict-sensitive education to positive discipline to classroom management—all of which are key to reducing peer-to-peer violence. With students, the project is about to introduce A Ganar Escuela, a sports-based program to promote social-emotional learning in schools that exhibit the highest levels of peer-to-peer violence (a cognitive behavioral intervention is in the works for cases of students exhibiting even higher number of risk factors).

Projects like Asegurando offer useful examples for how to approach peer violence within a broader web of school-related violence, including SRGBV. With support from USAID, the Global Working Group to End SRGBV is building evidence on the negative impact of bullying and peer violence, as well as developing tools and resources to address school violence in education programming. As awareness about the far-reaching effects of school violence grows, we can expect to see more programming designed to address it.

The Negative Impact of Peer Violence and Bullying on Safe Learning Environments webcast on July 31 elaborated on these topics and offered another way to encourage discussion about peer violence and other forms of violence in schools.