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Dispatches: UN Takes On LGBT Bullying in Asia

Accused of not being “girly enough,” she was frequently swarmed by students and beaten with a roll of paper. Her teachers witnessed the abuse again and again but did nothing. She begged her junior high classmates for help -- but they told her to endure the abuse, that high school would be easier.

A 20-year-old Japanese woman who was bullied by her classmates in junior high school holds a notebook displaying the message: “It was common knowledge that I was being bullied. It was also common knowledge that my teachers would never help me.” © 2015 Kyle Knight/Human Rights Watch

“It was common knowledge that I was being bullied,” she told me. “It was also common knowledge that my teachers would never help me.”

The story – shared with me this week by a 20-year-old bisexual woman in Japan – is sadly familiar in this part of the world, as is made clear by a UNESCO report released today that documents the widespread failure to address homophobic and transphobic bullying in schools across Asia and the Pacific. The document comes on the heels of 12 United Nations agencies pledging to address violence and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. 

There have been promising recent changes in the region. For example, a 2013 Act in the Philippines instructed schools to address bullying, and specifically refers to sexual orientation and gender identity.

But the overall picture is bleak; schools in the region remain overwhelmingly unsafe for LGBT students. In a 2013 survey in Thailand, 56 percent of the LGBT students polled reported being bullied in the previous month. And in a particularly egregious regression, the government of South Korea in early 2015 banned mention of homosexuality in sex education classes – in contradiction of UNESCO’s standards.

The report rightly notes that laws impacting broader LGBT populations “are still a significant barrier to addressing issues of violence and discrimination against LGBTI young people.” But even where there are no punitive laws, LGBT students can be targeted by peers and the bullying ignored by teachers.

I have been researching bullying of LGBT students in Japan. Though the country does not criminalize same-sex behavior, LGBT students face violence and discrimination in schools.

Homophobia and transphobia in schools can have an impact on students whether they identify as LGBT at the time or not. UNESCO makes this point: “It is not only those who self-identify as LGBT who are targeted for this violence and discrimination but also those who do not conform to gender norms, including societal expectations for heterosexual relationships.”

The government’s failure to address bullying can violate the rights to education, information, health, and freedom of expression. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has on multiple occasions expressed concern about bullying of LGBT students, as has UNICEF. Governments across Asia and the Pacific now have their roadmap to end such abuses – it’s time to act. 

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