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How safe are our children?

Laws are not enough to protect children from harassment in schools. It is the school managements that have to play a far more proactive role, reports Barun Adhikary. See graphics

delhi Updated: Oct 06, 2010 01:09 IST
Barun Adhikary

A boy of Class VIII in Kolkata committed suicide after he was caned by his principal and humiliated in front of schoolmates.

The principal was arrested on Monday on charges of suicide abetment but the police within hours changed his offence to ‘assault’. He is out on bail.

A 17-year-old girl in Hyderabad endured months of sexual harassment by her 50-year-old school principal who had managed to procure nude pictures of her.

She eventually decided enough was enough and revealed her story to the media in the hope that more did not suffer the same ordeal.

An 11-year-old boy was sodomised by two of his schoolmates in Delhi.

Sexual abuse and corporal punishment are a daily reality for many school students around the country. And they don’t just cause distress — such harassment can have a lifelong psychological, health and educational impact.

“Such incidents can cause trauma and pain that can last for their entire lives,” senior psychiatrist Jitender Nagpal says.

Even children who don’t experience harassment themselves but see such incidents taking place feel unsafe at school, leading to withdrawal and low self-esteem.

“I am worried whenever my son reaches home with a sad face, especially with such reports coming out every day,” said Rinku Singh, whose 12-year-old son attends a reputed school in New Delhi.

The spurt in the number of such incidents shows the government, teachers and administrators need to do more to ensure the safety of children at school.

NEED FOR STRICT LAWS

Recognising the need for stricter laws to combat exploitation in schools, the government is planning to pass the Protection of Children from Sexual Assault Bill, 2010, in Parliament soon.

The Bill gives a broader definition of sexual abuse of children and would make such offences non-bailable. It also covers the abuse inflicted on children through the Internet, another growing concern.

The bill is gender-neutral — a first for sexual abuse — and has been delineated into five categories with differing punishments: sexual assault, aggravated sexual assault, penetrative sexual assault, aggravated penetrative sexual assault and sexual harassment.

The draft law also provides for courts that are more oriented towards children to try such cases.

But instituting a law is never enough.

For instance, even though the Supreme Court banned corporal punishment a decade ago, school children are routinely rapped on the knuckles, asked to kneel down or stand for hours, caned and slapped by their teachers.

In 2006, a nodal agency called the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights was set up to look into allegations and cases relating to the safety and development of children. But few know of its existence.

A new law to prevent sexual exploitation of children will face implementational challenges such as how to make a six-year-old child complain about her abuse, or even realise she is facing abuse.

RAISING AWARENESS

Raising the awareness of children about sexual harassment and educating them on this are things that schools need to work on.

“Laws come into effect only when the case has surfaced and it does not provide for a preventive mechanism. Also there is a lack of transparency on what happens in our schools, for which we should have an autonomous authority or an independent person from the local child development office to be present in the school, to hear the problems faced by the children,” says P.S. Sharda, a lawyer and child rights activist.

Schools say they are working on this issue.

“We regularly send circulars to our teachers to sensitise them on corporal punishment and have initiated a process which tries to see signs of agony or distress in our children and act accordingly,” says Lata Vaidyanathan, principal of Modern School, Delhi.

She adds that a counselling cell and an active parent-teacher association are also there to address such issues.

Parents feel schools need to involve them to a greater extent to curb the menace.

“The only way to stop such incidents is to give adequate representation to parents in the school management. There is also a need for a more proactive counselling department talking not just to the children but with the parents and teachers as well,” says Ashok Agarwal, president of the All India Parents Association.

“The safety of the child can be ensured only if there is harmony between the natural surrounding of the school, i.e. its infrastructure, method of study and the emotional development of the child which is generally forgotten,” says Nagpal. “This is the need of the hour.”