Ensuring Lebanon’s Children are Protected from Violence is Vital to Future Peace
and Regional Stability
The arrival of hundreds of thousands of Syrian children in Lebanon since the outbreak of the civil war in Syria in 2011 has put additional pressure on Lebanon’s already strained education system. The added squeeze on schools’ resources was accompanied by an increase in children’s vulnerability to violence and abuse, says Nahla Harb, the school counseling coordinator at the Lebanese Ministry of Education.
Faced with the prospect of an unsafe academic environment, many children choose to skip school, or drop out altogether, according to a 2018 study on bullying in Lebanon by Save the Children. In even more troubling findings, the World Bank has identified that «a lack of schooling today is likely to [...] exacerbate the risk of future conflict and destabilization in the region.»
Until recently, there was no integrated child protection policy in Lebanon’s schools, meaning teachers were often ill-equipped to deal with violent incidents and were instead reliant on training and intervention delivered by NGOs.
To address this, last year, the Ministry of Education, in coordination with UNICEF, launched the «Policy for the Protection of Students in the School Environment». After piloting it in 20 schools and receiving feedback, it was rolled out in 300 public schools to mainstream the implementation across the country.
The draft policy provides a framework for training school staff on how to identify signs of bullying or abuse, and make referrals to specialists at the ministry. For Nisrine Tawily, a child protection officer at UNICEF, such a policy should be «the minimum standard» for any entity that has direct contact with children.
Besides equipping teachers with the tools to spot violence, the policy aims to help children build nonviolent relationships and to develop safer school environments. This safe educational setting in turn ultimately allows children to focus and learn more effectively, according to Tawily.
Helping to create safer schools is a team of dedicated psychological support counselors from the ministry, who run sessions with pupils that cover five skills: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship building and effective decision-making.
«Transecting all these activities is the overarching theme of nonviolence,» Harb explained.
One of the activities introduced to younger children is «the star of gratitude»: They are each given a paper star and asked to write the names of five people who have supported them. The feeling of gratitude triggers the release of oxytocin, a hormone that has been proven to repair emotional damage and maintain well-being, Harb said.
Only Syrian children, whose curriculum is more flexible than that of their Lebanese counterparts, currently benefit from the presence of permanent psychological support counselors. For Lebanese students, a rotating team of «mobile» counsellors delivers the peacebuilding activities and trains teaching staff.
Harb said the ministry is «dreaming» of having full-time counselors available for Lebanese children, but said that this hope has not yet found its way into legislation.
Of course, violence against children does not begin and end at the school gates. A high level of tolerance for violence against children remains in many Lebanese communities, said Tawily.
While the Ministry of Education’s mandate does not extend to children’s homes and the wider community, officials are confident that the support offered by the policy will encourage children to talk about problems at home.
«Our main message [to children] is that you can ask and that’s okay—you won’t get in trouble,» Harb said.
The initial policy roll-out allowed its creators to receive feedback and finetune the policy’s format in the hope of building a more peaceful future for the next generation of Lebanese and Syrians.
* Journalist at The Daily Star newspaper