A quarter of all school pupils in the UAE are being bullied, the Ministry of Education has revealed.
To combat this, the ministry launched a child protection unit to monitor and respond to cases of bullying and abuse.
The unit aims to help pupils at all schools across the country by receiving reports of bullying from parents or teachers through a hotline, assessing the situation and then taking preventive measures to intervene and protect the child.
A group of child protection officers have been trained to work within the unit and receive calls from children or families seeking help in cases of bullying. They are responsible for taking necessary protection measures on behalf of the children.
Dr Amna Al Shamsi, assistant undersecretary of the activities sector at the Ministry of Education said that, though the UAE has fewer instances of bullying than the international average (of one in three pupils), there was no reason to be complacent.
"That does not mean we should not be dealing with the problem and we have to put immediate action to deal with bullying to try to eliminate its impact.”
She said surveys carried out by the ministry revealed that verbal bullying was the most common in the UAE.
Both verbal and physical bullying occur at girls and boys schools but she said girls’ schools tended to have more cases of the former and boys’ schools have more of the latter.
She said bullying in all its forms — be it socially or online — effects children’s well-being.
"Cyber bullying goes undetected and is the most silent," said Ms Al Shamsi.
"We have been training counsellors and staff at schools and we have trained care providers in the school system.”
The ministry has held workshops for parents to raise awareness and teach them to spot signs of bullying among their children. Other ministry programmes included holding support groups and individual counselling sessions for children.
In group sessions, pupils are encouraged to discuss challenges at school and say what they would do if they witnessed bullying or were subjected to it.
The ministry is currently conducting a survey with the Emirates College of Advanced Education to collate more data on the topic.
"To solve any issue you need to go the cause or root of the challenge and you need to collaborate with other entities to face this challenge," said Ms Al Shamsi.
The new unit is the latest in the ministry’s efforts to clampdown on abusive behaviour among pupils. Last year, it launched an annual National Bullying Prevention Week, during which it trains teachers and consultants on how to deal with bullying and visits schools to raise awareness.
"The new child protection unit will provide intervention and has been designed to help children who have been subject to abuse of different kinds," said Ms Al Shamsi.
"With the new child protection officers, we have multiple layers of intervention."
She advised parents who felt their children may be bullied to reach out to the child protection unit.
"We want to encourage parents not to wait for their children to talk to them about what is happening at school. They have to approach them and often the conversation between them is the most important one.
"If the child does not feel safe to talk to their parents the problems reach a very risky level without parents or the school knowing about it," she said.
Despite the ministry’s efforts, bullying remains rife in some schools.
An Irish public boy’s schoolteacher in Sharjah said he has witnessed many instances of bullying at his school.
"I have seen verbal bullying, pupils using bad language and physical bullying with pupils being hit and gang-beaten," he said.
"There have been incidents where two or three pupils have attacked a pupil and I had to intervene and been hit by pupils.
"I had to step in and put myself in harm’s way and have been hit a few times and when the pupils realised they have hit a teacher, they stopped and backed off.
"The ministry of education needs to start a strong consistent nationwide campaign where children are taught to say no to bullies.
"Children need to be told that they do not need to tolerate bullying or suffer in silence."
Parents can reach out to the Child Protection Unit at the Ministry of Education is they feel their child may be bullied at school.