Thursday, 3 September 2015

Breaking the Cycle of Violence

By Nick Baker, Communication and Knowledge Management Officer 

Weapons made by 15-year-old Rama. ©UNICEF Indonesia/2015/Nick Baker

In a South Sulawesi community centre, 15-year-old Rama* lays out a collection of sharp metallic arrows. The softly-spoken teen explains how he once made and sold these arrows to fellow youth. They were used in the gang warfare which occasionally erupts in his neighbourhood. “Violence is everywhere here,” he says.

Rama has a story similar to many young people in Indonesia. He grew up surrounded with violence - violent parents, violent teachers, violent friends. By the time Rama entered his teens, violence had not only become acceptable, but almost a routine part of his daily life.

“I started to fight at school. I would fight in the streets,” he says. It proved to be a slippery slope. “One day my uncle gave me a badik knife (traditional Indonesian knife). Then I was fighting with knives and I got stabbed,” he says, lifting his shirt to reveal a number of scars.

Rama’s life spiraled out of control. He left school, moved out of home, became involved in local gangs and was even imprisoned. “I’ve lost count of how many times I was in trouble with the police,” he says.

And all along, Rama saw violence as the solution, never the problem.

Professor Siti Aisyah Kara is engaging religious leaders to curb violence against children. ©UNICEF Indonesia/2015/Nick Baker

Taking a stand

Violence is widespread in Indonesia: In a recent survey, 40 percent of children aged 13-15 years reported being attacked at school in the previous 12 months; 48 percent of women believe that domestic abuse is justifiable; bullying rates are among the highest in the world. And yet a substantial national dialogue around the topic is largely absent.

A number of Indonesians from a variety of backgrounds are trying to change this. Some have experienced violence themselves, others have felt its effects indirectly. All are resolved to end the silence around this topic.

Representative of South Sulawesi’s Bureau of Women’s Empowerment and Family Planning, Nur Anti Madjid oversees a constituency of some eight million people in her province. And no matter the village, town or city, “violence against children is almost universal.”

Nur Anti says discipline is the prime motivator. “Parents and teachers feel that corporal punishment is necessary to discipline children,” she says. This ranges from pinching, hair-pulling and slapping to severe beatings. Generally for the supposed “good of the child.”

So UNICEF started a partnership with the South Sulawesi Government. Anti-violence training tools and workshops have since been developed for parents and teachers in the area. “We do it in a positive way,” Nur Anti says. “We show them how not using corporal punishment is positive for both themselves and the children.”

At the Islamic State University Alauddin in Makassar, Professor Siti Aisyah Kara is taking a very different approach to curbing violence. The expert on Islamic teachings is on a mission to educate Indonesians how the Quran and Hadith prohibit sexual, emotional and physical abuse of children.

“This is a predominantly Muslim country,” she says. “Many people here view the world through a religious lens. So it is very effective to address violence against children from a religious standpoint.”

UNICEF worked with Professor Aisyah to produce material on child protection specifically for religious leaders. These religious leaders can then use the content to influence their communities. “Every child has the right to be free from violence,” she says. “I am trying to show people how this is everyone’s responsibly.”

Professor Aisyah is also focusing on child marriage, which affects one in six girls around Indonesia. Girls who are married off at an early age are often more vulnerable to domestic violence and abuse. “Child marriage does not come from Islamic teaching,” she says. “Instead, we need to empower Indonesian girls.”

Debi, Firda, Dhanu, Galo and Auzain of South Sulawesi’s Child Forum are beginning a discussion on violence against children. ©UNICEF Indonesia/2015/Nick Baker

A better future

Young Indonesians are slowly beginning to speak out about violence. They face a population who is reticent to talk about this taboo topic, along with a raft of difficult traditions and misunderstandings. But for South Sulawesi’s Child Forum, these challenges are far from insurmountable.

Child Forum groups have been established across Indonesia by the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection, with the support of UNICEF. They give children the opportunity to participate in societal issues that affect their lives. UNICEF recently organized a focus group discussion with key South Sulawesi’s Child Forum members to get a child perspective on violence.

All the young people could easily recount times when they were exposed to violence. “A child in my neighborhood stole some money so his mother struck him with a large stone,” Debi says. “At school, a teacher hit a student with a ruler and broke his hand,” recalls Galo. One story is particularly disturbing: “A child I knew was actually burned with chemicals as a way of disciplining him,” Firda says.

Auzan sums up the situation: “Our society thinks violence is normal,” he says. “We live among it every day. But Indonesian children don’t deserve to be treated like this. So we’re trying to stand up against it.”

The group is doing so in many different ways. They are convening debates around the topic on social media, working directly with communities where abuse is particularly widespread and providing assistance to at-risk children. “We are starting the discussion,” Dhanu adds.

And the solution which seems to be the most effective is also the simplest. “It is important to be role models,” Auzan says. “We want to show people that violence should never be used, no matter the problem.” It’s an important step in altering a society with an ingrained acceptance of violence.

As for Rama, his life slowly started to change last year. He began to take part in several anti-violence programmes, including one supported by UNICEF. It’s a long road ahead but there’s a definite sense of aspiration. “I’m now thinking about my future,” Rama says.

At least one cycle of violence appears to be breaking.

*Name changed.