Key Takeaway: 

School-based violence towards students with disabilities in Zambia is perpetuated by fellow students and teachers. This study examines the reasons teachers are reluctant to deal with stigmatized violence, while emphasizing that special educators have been advocating for and promoting ways to prevent this violence.  Some solutions offered are clear governmental policies with enforcement, teacher training and professional development, anonymous reporting, and developing an anti-violence intervention program. —Tanya Farrol

School Violence in Zambia

An estimated 246 million children experience violence in school every year, which is approximately 1 in 4  students.1 In Zambia, 63% of students are bullied by their peers, and 97% receive corporal punishments from their teachers.2  School violence affects student participation and performance at school and leads to students dropping out. This then leads to unemployment or receiving lower wages due to a lack of education. The violence even impacts their own children, as children exposed to violence are more likely to perpetrate violence against their future children.3

School violence is found to be greater for those students with disabilities than their non-disabled peers due to stigma related factors like stereotypes and prejudice. In high-income countries, “children with disabilities experience violence four times more frequently than non-disabled children.”4 However, not many studies have looked at the prevalence of school based violence towards children with disabilities in low and middle-income countries. This study aims to provide data in this unexamined area as 85% of children with disabilities live in low and middle-income countries.5 It is believed that “violence against children with disabilities can be expected to be higher in Zambia where there are greater stigmas associated with having a disability, fewer resources available for families who have children with disabilities, and a wider accepted use of corporal punishment in disciplining children.”6 

UNICEF estimates that 4.4% of the children in Zambia have disabilities—a country with an estimated population of 17 million.7 There is a higher rate of disability among the female population and visual impairments are the most common type of disability. Zambia ratified the United Nations’ Rights of the Persons with Disabilities in 2010 and worked to provide inclusive policies in the Education Act  2011.8 Despites these policies, it was found that students with disabilities did not attend or were less likely to be enrolled in schools, especially if they were female or lived in a rural area. 

In Zambia, many schools still practice corporal punishment even though it is banned by the government. In 2014, UNICEF found that school violence against children was both physical and sexual, usually perpetrated by people the victim knew, including teachers and peers. However, there is limited research on the “response of teachers to disability-based violence” in Zambia.

Beliefs that Sustain Violence in Schools

One hundred and thirty-five participants took part in the study with 90 students with disabilities, 33 teachers or administrators and 12 parents of the children with disabilities. The students had a variety of disabilities ranging from visual impairments to intellectual impairment. Of the schools, 7 were primary and 2 were secondary.

The violence reported was perpetrated by both students and teachers, with name-calling and bullying by non-disabled students and corporal punishment by  teachers. Also, students with disabilities reported being excluded from games by their non-disabled peers.

Shockingly, “teachers most often did not report or address incidents after witnessing or hearing about violence towards students with disabilities no matter the type of severity of the violence.” This can be attributed to the beliefs held by the teacher, including but not limited to the following:

  • Victim Blaming: Teachers did not believe an incident had occurred because it was in the child’s imagination.
  • Grow Up As Real Boys: Being bullied is seen as a rite of passage by many teachers for boys to grow up as ‘real boys.’
  • Brother’s Keeper: Students are expected to care for one another and deal with the school violence themselves. This absolves the teacher from responding and puts the onus on a student with disabilities’ friends to help deal with violence.
  • Forgiveness: Students with disabilities need to practice the Christian belief of “forgive and forget” when harmed. Many students are taught to not report harm or ask for help.
  • Lack of Direction: Teachers were not sure of what to do or had little training in child protection. Also, if there were school policies in place, many were not implemented.

How Teachers Responded to Violence

When teachers did respond to violence, they would often punish the perpetrators.  Students would be either suspended, expelled, or reported to a higher authority.  Teachers who were violent towards their students would be reported to the police if witnessed by another teacher or administration.

However, some teachers responded to the violence with preventive or caring actions to support the victims. This was usually the special education teacher, even though they were often discouraged by the administration to respond to violence in schools. It was found that special educators did not have the authority to advocate for better treatment and were often “overruled” by other teachers.

Solutions to Violence in Schools

The main findings of this study were that school is “an unsafe place for students with disabilities in Zambia,” and that much of the “violence goes unaddressed and unreported.”  In order to combat school violence, the following were presented as possible solutions by the authors:

  • Setting up a clear reporting process for all staff to follow in every school.  The reporting process needs to be anonymous.
  • Students with disabilities have less power in dealing with stigmatized school violence and require teachers to intervene and stop instances of violence the first time they occur. This ensures that the violence does not escalate over time.9
  • Schools need to implement an anti-violence strategy that emphasizes the role of the up-stander.
  • Schools should build on successful anti-bullying and gender-based school violence intervention programs to include violence towards students with disabilities.
  • Teacher training programs and professional development need to up-skill teachers on how to deal with school violence. Special educators could take the lead in these professional development sessions.
  • The government needs to mandate child protection policies with clear procedures for reporting and monitoring the implementation of those policies. 

The authors acknowledge that this study might not generalize to all contexts and cultures, but that it does have applications for other resource-limited countries. 

Summarized Article:

Janet Njelesani, Jenny Lai, Cecilia M. Gigante, and Jessica Trelles. ‘Will You Protect Me or Make the Situation Worse?: Teachers’ Responses to School Violence Against Students With Disabilities’. Journal of Interpersonal Violence (2021), Vol. 0(0) 1–26.

Summary by: Tanya Farrol – Tanya believes that the MARIO Framework is a personalized learning experience that develops skills and empowers learners to become an integral part of their learning journey.

Academic researcher Janet Njelesani participated in the final version of this summary. 

Additional References:

  1. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). (2017). School violence and bullying: Global status report. Unesdoc.unesco.org. https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000246970/PDF/246970eng.pdf.multi 
  2. Fleming, L. C., & Jacobsen, K. H. (2009, November 2). Bullying among middle-school students in low and middle income countries. OUP Academic. https://doi.org/10.1093/heapro/dap046 
  3. Pereznieto, P., Harper, C., Clench, B., Coarasa, J., & Unterhalter, E. (2010). The economic impact of school violence: A report for plan international. Overseas Development Institute. https://resourcecentre.savethechildren.net/pdf/3847.pdf 
  4. Jones, L., Bellis, M., Wood, S., Hughes, K., McCoy, E., Eckley, L., Bates, G., Mikton, C., Shakespeare, T., & Officer, A. (2012). [PDF] prevalence and risk of violence against children with disabilities: A systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies: Semantic scholar. Lancet, 380 (9845), 899-907. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(12)60692-8. 
  5. Maulik, P. K., & Darmstadt, G. L. (2007, July 1). Childhood disability in low- and middle-income countries: Overview of screening, prevention, services, legislation, and Epidemiology. American Academy of Pediatrics. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2007-0043B 
  6. Stoltenborgh, M., Bakermans-Kranenburg, M. J., Van Ijzendoorn, M.H., & Alink, L.R. (2013). Cultural-geographical differences in the occurrence of child physical abuse? A meta-analysis of global prevalence. International Journal of Psychology, 48(2), 81-94. https://doi.org/10.1080/00207594.2012.697165 
  7. UNICEF. (2016). Zambia National Disability Survey (2015). UNICEF. https://www.unicef.org/zambia/reports/zambia-national-disability-survey-2015 
  8. UNICEF. (2016). Zambia National Disability Survey (2015). UNICEF. https://www.unicef.org/zambia/reports/zambia-national-disability-survey-2015 
  9. Yoon, J., Sulkowski, M. L., & Bauman, S. A. (2016). Teachers’ responses to bullying incidents: Effects of teacher characteristics and contexts. Journal of School Violence, 15(1), 91-113. https://doi.org/10.1080/15388220.2014.963592