Partnership between UNESCO and the World Anti-Bullying Forum

On 1 to 3 November 2021, UNESCO participated in and organised sessions at the World Anti-Bullying Forum (WABF) in Stockholm. This year the WABF coincided with the International Day against violence and bullying at school including cyberbullying.

The forum was attended by 717 delegates from 40 different countries and the vast majority of the participants were from the academic & research field, other participants were mostly civil society and government representatives.

UNESCO was involved in four sessions, among others in the pre-conference session on sexual harassment and bullying that presented data on the scope of sexual violence as well as how gender inequalities and norms are playing out in school settings, and what the education sector can do to address them. The session concluded among other things that promising responses to sexual harassment and bullying seem to have in common that effective preventive responses usually start with children at an early age: this ensures a positive approach to developing resilience and breaking the normalization of bullying which can be a predictor of sexual harassment and teen dating violence among high school students, as shown by research in the USA.

The need for trained teachers to prevent bullying

A presentation of findings from a UNESCO-commissioned study on teachers’ perception and practice related to bullying showed that although teachers are instrumental in creating safe learning environments, one in five teachers surveyed are unable to recognize various forms of bullying behaviors as violence, and almost half of them think their training inadequately prepared them to handle school violence. This calls for improved pre- and in-service training to teachers on issues such as mediation skills, cyber safety awareness and effective support to victims.

A special session introduced key components of the whole-education approach to preventing and addressing bullying, as presented in the Recommendations on preventing and addressing bullying and cyberbullying, published by UNESCO in November 2 020. Officials from ministries of education in Ireland, South Africa and Sweden discussed opportunities and challenges in using the approach for designing, implementing, monitoring and evaluating their national bullying prevention programmes. Representatives from the Irish Ministry of Education explained how the Irish Government Action Plan on Bullying will be reviewed using the whole-education approach as a benchmark.

Bullying and children with disabilities

Another special session focused on specific aspects of the response to bullying involving children and young people with disabilities. This session built on UNESCO’s publication ‘’Violence and bullying in educational settings: the experience of children and young people with disabilities,’’ which includes data on the scope of bullying affecting learners with disabilities, revealing that they are disproportionately affected by bullying. For example, data from 11 European countries reveals that students in primary and secondary schools in some countries in Europe are twice as likely to be bullied in schools than their non-disabled peers. The publication also exposes pathways for action, such as training and support to teachers, something that Prof. Rami Benbenishty highlighted when he mentioned the necessity for teachers to have the appropriate knowledge and resources to adequately support the specific needs of the different subgroups of students living with disabilities, noting that they are not a homogeneous group. More globally, inclusive education must be the foundation upon which interventions are to be taken, as advocated by the Special Envoy of the UN Secretary General on Disability and Accessibility, Prof. Maria Soledad Cisternas Reyes.

Proposing a new and revised definition of school bullying

The working group co-convened by UNESCO and the WABF to revise the definition of bullying, proposed a revised definition of school bullying to the WABF delegates. This was a follow-up to the request expressed by the French Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports for a more inclusive definition of school bullying in preparation for the International conference on school bullying organized in November 2020. The proposed new definition stresses how the social context and institutional context of schools can enable or inhibit bullying; it focuses on the personal experience of harm by the target of school bullying, regardless of how many times a student is bullied; and calls for a comprehensive response to school bullying by the whole school community and the whole education system, as bullying always occurs within a given social network.

During the forum, 120 participants from 22 countries, predominantly (90%) from Europe and North America, provided their comments on the proposed revised definition through an online survey. More than two thirds (70%) of them agreed with the need for a revised definition, and about half (51%) of them agreed with the proposed new definition, while 40% expressed disagreement or reservations. Over two thirds of the respondents also gave specific comments and suggestions to improve the clarity of the definition. These results indicate a need for additional and broader consultations to address all inputs and propose an improved revised definition of bullying at the WABF in 2023.

UNESCO has established a close collaboration with the organizers of the WABF which has led to a series of joint activities conducted in 2021 prior to the Forum. This included the establishment of a working group, co-led by UNESCO and the WABF, and the organisation of four virtual international thematic meetings focusing on various aspects of bullying. These activities contributed directly to this year’s Forum.