If statistics can tell a story, brace yourself for a horrific one.
According to the National Crimes Records Bureau (NCRB), as many as 15,039 children were identified as victims of assault under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act in 2015. Of these, 8,800 cases were filed under sections 4 & 6 of the Act – dealing with penetrative and aggressively penetrative sexual assaults respectively.
In 8,341 cases, the assaulter was known to the child.
Every day, a young child – both boys and girls – is sexually abused by a stranger, a relative or – worse – a teacher who is supposed to be teaching them right from wrong. The previous year had ended with the news of a Karnataka couple discovering that their 13-year-old daughter was pregnant with the child of an auto rickshaw driver who had been raping her repeatedly.
The New Year started on a bad note too, with a serial offender in New Delhi boasting of having assaulted 500 minor girls.
Sunil Rastogi, a 36-year-old tailor from Uttar Pradesh, told police that his modus operandi comprised travelling to Delhi twice a month and standing in wait for lone schoolgirls to pass by. He would approach the victim with gifts, and lure her to a secluded area in the locality for more.
Karnataka and Delhi amplify a phenomenon that is routine across the country. Children are vulnerable to sexual predators in school and outside it. The crucial question, therefore, is: Are schools doing enough to educate and safeguard its young ones?
Special counselling teams have been constituted at all the private schools in Ranchi to address issues related to child abuse. Children are taught about “bad and good touch”, and encouraged to speak up if anything untoward happens to them.
Owing to a slew of child sexual abuse cases that emerged in 2014, the Karnataka government has issued a circular that mandates schools to get the names of their staffers registered with police stations. It also called for the constitution of child protection committees – comprising teachers, parents, students and administrative workers – at every school.
Gayatri Ananth, a member of the Vigilant Citizen, said schools in the state have been actively trying to spread awareness on sexual assault among children.
However, in the national capital – where at least five children are assaulted every month – not all schools address the issue of securing their students.
Rajeshwari Kapri, principal of the Government Girls’ Senior Secondary School in Sonia Vihar, admits that safety remains a concern in her locality. However, she has tied up with the Delhi police to train her students in self defence. “I know my students are not very safe when they step out, and this worries me. In this area, anybody –neighbor, relative or friend – can be a potential rapist. Girls may not even tell their parents if they are assaulted for fear that they will be blamed. This is why we are organising self-defence classes for them,” said Kapri.
Ameeta Mulla Wattal, principal of Springdales School on Pusa Road, explains how circumstances have forced parents and teachers to turn vigilantes. “I don’t want to be an alarmist, but we do have unsavoury elements in our society. Schools can hike their security, but they can’t be responsible for children’s safety once they leave the campus. So, the onus of ensuring that the children reach home safe should be on parents, NGOs and law enforcement agencies,” she added.
However, even the mandated guidelines are not practised in some cases. Andhra Pradesh’s Balala Hakkula Sangham – which is waging a pitched battle against child abuse – pointed out that all-girl schools are not allowed to appoint male teachers below 45 years of age.
The management is mandated to ensure the safety of girl students until they reach home in co-education institutions too. “There should also be a psychologist to counsel students regularly. However, this is lacking in most schools,” said Sangham convener Anuradha Rao.
Many children find it difficult to speak up, say experts. “It is practically impossible for a child to speak up against an adult offender, especially if he is liked by family members. The silence is built into the abuse itself – the kind of influence the abuser might have on the child.
Some even fear angering their parents,” says Anuja Gupta, founder and executive director of RAHI foundation, a one-of-its-kind NGO that offers support to survivors of incest. According to her, it is important for adults to create a conducive environment for disclosure, and keep a lookout for sudden changes in behaviour.
There is no robust system available to tackle the critical issue of child sexual abuse, and each state government continues to grapple with its own set of guidelines.
Taking note of the sexual assault on a nine-year-old girl at an educational institution in central Mumbai’s Dadar last year, the Bombay high court asked the Maharashtra government to ensure that schools install CCTV cameras on their premises.
Though most have adhered to the guideline, only a few monitor the footage closely or store them for more than 30 days.
The Centre is also grappling with ways to address the issue. A POCSO e-Box recently launched by the Union ministry for women and child development is displayed prominently on the website of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR). The complaints will reach the NCPCR directly, instead of being routed through state education departments. However, as a ministry official pointed out, “streamlining complaints is only one aspect of a very large problem”.