The Status of Bullying in Sri Lanka

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Like so many Asian countries, Sri Lanka is experiencing its share of bullying behavior. A recent study by Sri Lanka’s College of Community Physicians indicated how much bullying was affecting Sri Lankan schools.

According to survey results, in Kandy, the second largest city on the island and capital of Central Province, approximately 78.1% of boys and 26.5% of girls had been bullied. Although parents and teachers are aware of bullying behavior, they don’t know how to handle bullying situations or prevent bullying from happening. In many schools, teachers ignore bullying signs rather than exert the extra time and effort it takes to deal with bullying cases.

How Widespread is Bullying in Sri Lanka?

Unlike the U.S., Sri Lanka isn’t experiencing the horror of shooters in their schools yet or similar atrocities. The country does, however, have a history of school bullying that can’t be denied. Primary bullying, middle school bullying and high school bullying is fairly common on the island. Government schools, in particular, are rife with bullying behavior. Home and workplace bullying also pose a problem. Unfortunately, many of the seeds of bullying are planted in the school environment.

Studies show that verbal and physical bullying occurs frequently in Sri Lankan schools with boys being more apt to be involved as victims or offenders. Boy bullies are more prone to perpetrate violent acts. Girls generally use verbal abuse or social exclusion when bullying others.

There are many reasons why people bully. Domestic violence and child abuse is an ongoing problem in Sri Lanka. It’s not unusual, therefore, for bullies to come from harsh home environments where parental or sibling bullying is the norm. In such instances, children or teens may bully as a means of venting anger or resentment. Bullying statistics show that approximately 31% of students in schools across the island have suffered from either traditional or internet bullying.

The Inroads of Cyberbullying at the University Level

Children and teens are not the only ones having to deal with bullying. A study by Namila Weerasekara of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura revealed the inroads of cyberbullying among young university adults. The study was designed to distinguish patterns of cyberbullying activities at the university level in order to identify what causes bullying and determine how to deal with bullying acts.

Fifty-five students ages 20-25 from four Sri Lankan universities participated in Namila’s study. The research revealed the following online bullying facts:

  • Approximately 90% of students had suffered from cyberbullying
  • Almost all survey participants said they knew people who had been bullied online
  • 80% of cyberbullying offenses took place on social media with Facebook being the most common bullying site
  • Most victims and/or bystanders don’t report bullying instances, not even to family or friends
  • 65% of male students and 40% of female students confessed to bullying others
  • The most prevalent bullying offense among university students was the posting of embarrassing videos or photos (65%); posting private information of victims on the web was second (15%) followed by spreading gossip or lies (9%) and posting insults (2%)

Although this online bullying information came from students aged 20-25, the research disclosed that many of the victims experienced cyberbullying initially as teens. The average age for first time cyberbullying victims was between 16 and 19 years old. For many students, online bullying activities carried over into their university years. Most students reported being bullied from 1-3 times, after which they put measures in place to reduce the risk of being targeted, i.e. privacy settings, blocking trouble makers, etc.

Tragic Consequences of Internet Bullying in Sri Lanka

Suicide is perhaps the most tragic consequence of Internet bullying, especially when young people are the ones taking their own lives. Such was the case of 15 year old Venusha Bandara who committed suicide in her home in 2014 after a classmate posted an ‘inappropriate photo’ of her on a social media site.

According to her parents, Venusha was reprimanded by her school’s principal after a photograph appeared on Facebook showing her together with a male classmate during a school outing. In a conservative Islamic culture such as that of Sri Lanka, men and women keep their distance, particularly in social environments. For a young girl to pose in a photo with a boy would have been considered ‘taboo.’ The principal met with Venusha after receiving an anonymous tip about the photo being online. After the meeting, Venusha told her family she ‘never wanted to return to school’ again. Shortly thereafter, she took her own life.

In her suicide note, Venusha said she wanted to avoid bringing more shame and humiliation on her family. She also wrote, “Why are they not blaming the person who uploaded the picture and only blame me?” The photo was later removed from Facebook by the student who posted it. The incident was investigated by the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA), the agency responsible for keeping kids and teens safe from abusive behavior.

Effects of Cyberbullying on Young Sri Lankan Students

According to a six month review of cyberbullying complaints by the NCPA’s Cyber Watch unit, most internet bullying victims are young girls aged 13-18. Many of the incidents are perpetrated by boys taking revenge on ex-girlfriends for ending their relationship. Posting a nude photo of their ex-girlfriend or doctoring an existing porn image to make it look like their ex-girlfriend is a common ploy.

Samudra Kathriarachchi, Head of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, treats young bullying victims at the Colombo South Teaching Hospital. She’s seen firsthand the devastating effects of cyberbullying on teen patients. Many suffer from psychological distress and have a difficult time adjusting to society after their ordeal.  “More than anything else, their opportunities to learn and develop as children are lost because of cyberbullying,” she says, causing them to miss out on an important aspect of their life.

In Sri Lanka, most internet bullying is of a sexual nature, with boys insulting girls’ bodies or calling them derogatory names like “slut.” The use of such offensive language not only insults the girl but her parents, her ethnic background and her religion. Sri Lankan psychiatrists have seen an increase in online sexual harassment in Sri Lanka over the last few years.

Sumithrayo is a charity organization in Sri Lanka that offers free counseling and support for young people suffering from emotional problems. From April of 2013 to March 2014, counselors from the organization noticed a steady increase in hotline callers seeking help with cyberbullying problems. Approximately 9% of the callers were between 10 and 20 years of age.

Task Force to Combat Cyber Harassment

In 2015, the NCPA formed a special anti-bullying task force to combat the growing problem of internet bullying and sexual harassment on social media sites.  Social media networks such as Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp were among those used most often for cyberattacks. The task force was composed of members from the police department, Attorney General’s office, Ministry of Justice, public organizations and the NCPA.

Although there are no official cyberbullying laws in Sri Lanka, existing laws can be used to prosecute individuals guilty of serious cyber offenses such as stalking, harassment or extortion. The task force was also commissioned with formulating new laws against Internet bullying in Sri Lanka, making it a criminal offense. The NCPA in conjunction with the Ministries of Education and Justice are working on an online safety program to be taught in schools to help reduce cybercrimes.

Through the newly formed anti-bullying task force, Sri Lanka is taking steps to protect students at school and help stop bullying behavior. The country’s goal is to create a bully-free society where young people can receive the moral, social and academic training they need to reach their full potential and make a positive contribution to society.

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