Whether they are coming in from Bengaluru, Mumbai and Delhi or from Bhopal, Patna and Chandigarh, the reports are remarkably similar. Adults working in close proximity with children - bus attendants, school support staff, and most shockingly, teachers and principals themselves - have been caught abusing children entrusted to them.
Some cases like the alleged rape of a 6-year-old girl at Vibgyor High School in Bengaluru last year have triggered such outrage that they have compelled the Karnataka state government and the police to issue child safety guidelines to schools and to work to enforce them. "The Child Helpline was flooded with calls after the Vibgyor school case. From six to seven calls per week relating to child abuse, it shot up to 75 calls on a single day," says Child Rights Trust director and RTE activist Nagasimha G Rao.
At this point we have to ask if Indian society has suddenly been overrun by paedophiles. Enakshi Ganguly Thukral, co-director, HAQ centre for child rights, New Delhi, believes children have always been vulnerable. "There is no upsurge in cases. The only difference is that parents are more aware now and they are no longer apprehensive about bringing such cases to the school management," she says. The shift in attitudes has meant that middle class parents at least are now talking about the issue, insisting that government-recommended safeguards be put in place at school, and pursuing culprits.
Sadly, government schools with their meagre budgets often cannot afford to install CCTVs or even have security guards throughout. They also suffer from a lack of awareness about the problem and a class bias on the part of the police when it comes to enforcement. Activist Muneer Katipalla of Mangalore points to the October 2012 rape and murder of a minor girl in the small temple town of Dharmashtala. "Boys from a powerful feudal family were suspects in the case and thousands had taken to the streets demanding that the police register a case against them. But there was absolutely no media coverage. The family had to travel to Bengaluru for that," he says.
Still, the intense media focus in some cases has brought with it a greater awareness of the extent of the problem. "Instead of hiding in shame, parents are responding with anger and outrage," says Dr Shaibya Saldanha, co-founder of Enfold, an NGO working to create awareness on child sexual abuse in Bengaluru. So what do parents who want to protect their children from the predators out there do? "Every school should have a child protection policy and a platform where such cases can be reported," says Thukral.
The State too needs to do more. The last central government study on child abuse was conducted in 2007 - clearly, the issue is not a priority. A perusal of the guidelines for schools issued in 2013 by the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights to prevent child abuse also seems inadequate. It states that bathrooms in schools should be separate for boys and girls; that schools should ask parents to provide names of adults allowed to pick up a child, and that these individuals show identification.
But how are kids to be protected from predatory school authorities and support staff who have easy access to them on the premises and on the commute home? Unless specific guidelines are laid down, a national database of paedophiles built, and the police force be trained to, both, prevent such cases and to deal with them sensitively and effectively when they do happen, children will continue to be put in harm's way.
THE CONSPIRACY OF SILENCE
On the night of June 6, a 10-year-old daughter of a sex worker died at a private hospital in the city. The paediatrician who attended to the child at the hospital grew suspicious when she discovered the child was bleeding from the rectum. She alerted the police. A few days later a newspaper in Assam carried a report claiming that an Assam Congress minister's son had been arrested by the Bengaluru police on the suspicion that he had raped the child.
The report went viral on North East community Facebook pages and Whatsapp groups. The police and the hospital authorities, however, maintained a stubborn silence. Activists backed off when the post mortem report came in saying the child had died of dengue.
By mid-July, R Khaleemulla from the Association for Protection of Civil Rights (APCR) was the only activist pursuing the case. He got a few other doctors to read the post mortem report. They pointed Khaleemullah to a part of the report which said that the child had suffered a tear in the anal passage. "Other experts told me that the post mortem report does not explain what caused the tear. They said it could be because of forced entry," Khaleem said.
Earlier this month, he found the paediatrician who had first attended to the child and who also shared his suspicion. The doctor agreed to speak out against the post mortem report filed by her colleagues in the forensic department and made a written submission to the Child Welfare Committee saying that she found signs to indicate that there was "peno-anal entry".
The Committee ordered the police to re-open the case and register an FIR last week. While the police top brass continue to maintain a high level of secrecy, Khaleemullah is pursuing the matter doggedly. He suspects the child was being trafficked and is demanding that a DNA test be conducted to establish the biological relationship between the child and the woman claiming to be the mother. "I will be the happiest person if it is finally found that the child was not raped."
BHOPAL, MADHYA PRADESH
IN CITIES RAPE HAPPENS OUTSIDE SCHOOL PREMISES
A 10-year-old girl in the Saraswati Nagar area of Balaghat district was raped by her teacher this July. She told no one out of fear and shock disclosing her trauma to her parents almost after a month - after watching a TV programme which featured a story similar to hers. The accused, Mahesh Korwane, was arrested after the parents registered a complaint at the Kotwali police station, under Section 376 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and Prevention of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO).
Twelve tribal girls of a government middle school of Khandabad village in Sehore district underwent the same trauma in April. They refused to go to school as one of their teachers, Ajay Garg, allegedly used to touch their private parts. He also warned them not to report the matter to anyone. Garg was transferred after some parents lodged a complaint against the teacher with the school administration but no legal action has been taken against him.
Apart from having the dubious distinction of topping the states in rape cases, Madhya Pradesh tops in number of minor rape cases as well. In 2013, for instance, a 10-year-old visually challenged orphan girl was allegedly raped by a teacher from her school. The crime was revealed when the girl became pregnant.
According to data of the National Crime Records Bureau for 2014, in all 2,354 cases of minor rapes were reported in the state - the highest in the country. Instances of child sex abuse were reported more in rural areas. In urban areas, instances of child sex abuse are reported more outside schools.
"In rural areas, there is not much security in schools and teachers are also not much aware. In urban areas, however, teachers are strictly instructed to remain alert. In urban areas, cases of sexual abuse are reported in school buses or outside school premises," says director Childline NGO ArchanaSahay.
'SCHOOLS MAY SEE IT AS DEFAMATION'
On August 15, a distraught man walked into a police station in suburban Mumbai to report that his daughter had been sexually assaulted by her school bus attendant. She was three.
The attendant took her aside under the pretext of helping her go to the toilet, and allegedly molested her. "At night, she started crying and told her parents. They took her to a private doctor, who found that she had a swelling on her private parts," says senior inspector Raghvendra Thakur. The child kept saying 'Uncle' was responsible, so the police questioned the school bus driver and the attendant and arrested the latter.
While security at school is an issue, a larger issue emerging in metros like Mumbai - with their large unregistered work force and unmonitored service providers - is ensuring that the child is also safe while commuting to school and back. "When it comes to non-teaching staff, school bus drivers and attendants, it is vital to do background checks and register employees with the police," Thakur says.
Read: Delhi govt launches campaign against child abuse
In light of the growing number of incidents in Mumbai, there have been recent moves to enforce such checks. Last month, for instance, the Archdiocesan Board of Education (ABE) in Mumbai made it mandatory for the 153 schools it manages to provide character certificates for all employees. "Under our new child protection policy, it is also mandatory for all schools to have CCTV cameras and counsellors and a grievance committee to look into such complaints," says ABE joint secretary Fr Francis Swamy. The Mumbai School Bus Owners Association, meanwhile, is considering training more women to drive school buses. While having discussions on how to prevent abuse is a positive trend, reactions to complaints of abuse remain defensive.
"Too many schools still see it as defamation," says Arundhati Chavan, president of the PTA United Forum, an association of parent-teacher associations. "Currently, there are still no fixed guidelines in schools about how to tackle the issue of child sexual abuse. We are now in talks with the state education department to formulate fixed guidelines." For parents, however, the nerve-wracking daily wait for their child to return home continues."We have spoken to our son repeatedly to try and help him understand the issue, but I still worry about him every day, especially now that I am reading about so many attacks in the newspapers," says Sujata Bhattacharjee, mother of a five-year-old.
UNWILLING TO LODGE A COMPLAINT
She was rehearsing along with other kids on the afternoon of August 10 for an Independence Day performance when her classmate Chintu (name changed) said the principal wanted to see her in his office. She did not return for a long time so Chintu went to check. And he saw something through the window of the principal's office.
He reported the matter to a lady teacher but instead of taking action, she asked the boy to shut up. After rehearsal, Chintu told his brothers about the incident who then alerted the girl's parents following which the repeated sexual abuse of 11-year-old Sonam (name changed) and other girls came to light.
"Sir told me these (sexual abuse) are extracurricular activities which all children do in the school and I also had to follow. If I resisted, he beat me up with a cane," Sonam, a Class 2 student at the private school, says somberly. She does not betray any emotion. This is perhaps because her sexual abuse at the hands of 52-year-old Babu Lal Sharma, school owner-cum-principal, had been going on for more than five months.
After the incident came to light, two more students of Class 4 and 5 alleged molestation and lodged police complaints. The accused was detained on August 10 at the Kardhani police station and later arrested under Section 376 of the IPC and the POCSO Act.
"Eight more girls of the locality reported similar treatment by the accused but the families are not ready to lodge police complaints fearing social stigma," says Narendra Singh of Jagrati Foundation, a NGO, who is assisting Sonam's family in the case.
The accused is in jail and the school, which has atleast 40 students and three female teachers, opens as usual but Sonam's future is uncertain. Her father, a daily wager hailing from Sheohar in Bihar, has not enrolled her in any other school and is thinking of returning to his native village.
'ABUSE IS EVERYONE'S PROBLEM'
According to Atiya Bose, director, Aangan, an NGO that works for prevention and protection of children exposed to harm, child sex abuse is rampant, and not restricted to a certain class or location. To identify a child facing abuse, parents need to probe when they notice a sudden change in the child's behaviour - withdrawn, aggressive, suddenly refusing to go to school, or not doing too well in their studies. Teachers and school staff also need to be alert and take note of such behaviour in children.
Since the onus is on the kids to report abuse, their admission needs to be followed by swift action from the parents, school administration and the police, she says. "Once the kid talks, you can't mess around. If the child's complaint is not taken seriously, what life lessons are they going to end up taking from this?" Adults who report such incidents also need to be protected against any harm.
However, Bose feels that there's too much focus on the post-harm situation, rather than that on ensuring that appropriate preventive measures are in place. Parents and school administrators need to ask: Is the school staff trained and sensitized to the issue? Are there enough checks on the staff (including contractual staff) and visitors in school? Are children being left alone in certain vulnerable situations such as going to the toilet? "It's a collective problem, not an individual one. We need to accept that it's happening everywhere. And school management, parents and teachers need to be seen as working together to address the issue, " she says.
According to the data of National Crime Records Bureau for 2014, 2,354 cases of minor rapes were reported in Madhya Pradesh - the highest in the country. 12,623 cases of child rape were reported across the country in 2013, compared to 8,541 in 2012-an increase of 45%.
(With inputs from Namita Kohli, SudiptoMondal, Prajwala Hegde, Danish RazaM Poornima, Rashpal Singh, Joanna Lobo)