Nichola Pais looks for solutions to protecting children from sexual abuse in schools
The school report card is tinged with red. Its image as a place of security for a child, thoroughly eroded. Teachers, principals, bus staff, care-givers, even fellow students have played their part in smashing a child’s cocoon of safety, abusing its trust and innocence and, in some cases, even ending its life. Not a single day seems to pass minus reports of dastardly sexual crimes against children.
If reports on September 20 followed up on the case of the Dehradun school student who was raped by her schoolmates and then made to undergo an abortion by school authorities attempting to hush up the matter, the same day’s newspapers also reported the case of a class V student being raped by her principal and teacher in Patna and left three weeks pregnant. Nestled alongside, were reports of an MP teacher being given the death sentence for raping a 4-year-old, and a Haryana juvenile getting 20 years for the rape of a 6-year-old… Can the horrific tide be stemmed?
Practising psychiatrist, Hinduja National Hospital, Dr Kersi Chavda believes children are the easiest targets. “There is increasing frustration in life, so people take recourse by targetting young people who are innocent and not in a position to retaliate. Secondly, the wheels of justice move so slowly that there is a general feeling that one can get away with it. There is a generalised negativity, a lack of gentleness and finesse. This is not helped by the horrible political statements about how ‘Boys will be boys’ and ‘It’s okay’. As a result, we are finding a real lack of inhibition and people end up doing what would be considered unthinkable at one time.”
Unfortunately despite the POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) Act of 2012, children are far from protected against sexual abuse, sexual harassment and pornography. According to the NCRB data for 2016, incidents of rape of children increased by over 82% compared to 2015. In fact, it was for the first time that such a sharp increase in sexual assaults on children had been registered. What’s more, an increasing number of them are occurring in the presumably safe child havens – schools, both government and private.
Dr Swati Popat Vats, President of Podar Education Network and Early Childhood Association – India, minces no words as she avers, “Safety is the last aspect that schools look into whether it is in furniture, or from bullying and sexual abuse. Majority – though there are exceptions – are focused on cost/ budgets.” She adds that schools also do not have a safety policy that outlines aspects, roles and responsibilities, which makes no one responsible for the safety lapses.
Educators across the board agree that a fundamental change is required across all levels in schools. Shukla Bose, Founder CEO Parikrma believes schools need to make efforts to create a culture of trust and caring. She points out, “Except for rare cases, young children are not perverts. They get involved in such dastardly acts because their sense of fun, victory, success and power has got warped. They need to be taught compassion and caring which will automatically veer them away from such acts. Students are under tremendous pressure from peers, family and society and they have not been taught to channelise their anger, frustration and lack of purpose in a constructive manner. We need to forget about converting our kids into scores and marks delivery machines and really have meaningful conversations with them. They need to be taught ethics and values at a very early age and slowly develop their moral compass.”
Rajeshree Shihag, Principal, The Fabindia School believes school leaders will have to take the lead in educating and sensitising each and everyone on campus. “We will have to educate children of grey…areas, things, actions and self defence. If they have been equipped well they will be able to handle a situation anywhere. Self-defence, awareness and confidence can help them take care of themselves. No one dares go near a confident child; the weak, fragile, under confident normally fall prey to such incidents. Discussions, seminars, and workshops are essential; patrolling alone won’t help much.”
Dr Swati recommends making children aware regularly of ‘good touch and bad touch’ practices, regardless of their age. Among the other steps she recommends are: “Make staff aware of the same too and train them not to touch children inappropriately. Teach them this in a workshop. Make a strong ‘zero tolerance’ policy about child abuse and child sexual abuse and make them sign it. Make them also aware of and refrain from bullying. Sexual abuse is a form of bullying as the perpetrator uses threats to subdue the victim. Monitor CCTV camera recordings regularly. Teach older kids a buddy system and tell them not to be alone even with a teacher.”
An attitudinal change is the need of the hour. As Sandeep Dutt, school coach and author puts it, “The role of values and the way we deliver education needs to be looked at more thoroughly. Are we preparing our children for the world, helping young people be more compassionate and have respect for each other? No amount of physical security measures will ever be enough; it is most important to have ‘spiritual security’ to ensure our children are ready for the world.” And till we achieve this desirable situation, can the fast track law system step up to deliver swift justice? Because our children’s security needs a backup plan.