The rape of a 10-year-old girl student at the government-aided tribal boarding school in Buldhana, Vidarbha may have brought all such schools under the scanner, but this will not be the first time. A panel report submitted to governor Ch Vidyasagar Rao last month had cautioned about sexual harassment cases across such schools and suggested precautionary measures for the same.
The panel headed by Dr Subhash Salunkhe, former director general of health services, Maharashtra government, was constituted in May by the state tribal development department to recommend corrective measures to prevent the death of students in tribal boarding schools, which include both government-run and privately run, but state-aided institutions. The report submitted in October had concluded that the around 700 deaths of tribal students in these boarding schools in the past 10 years could have been avoided. HT had reported on this in its October 20 edition.
The same report indicated sexual harassment of girls at tribal boarding schools. “We had a feeling the girls were being sexually exploited, but it was obvious they were under pressure from teachers and the management and would not open up to us. This must be why no one confided in us. Also, our visit to each school was for a limited time. We had no solid evidence to prove the crime,” said Salunkhe.
As a result, the report had stated: There has to be internal institutional committee to look into issues of gender violations after the Vishaka judgement (as per the current act). Teachers and staff need to be properly oriented to child right violations, gender-based violations and to the powers of internal committees to prevent sexual harassment. This should be at the ashram school (boarding school) level and the information must be displayed on the campus.
During their presentation of the report, on October 19, the committee discussed the issue with the governor, who had issued directives to the government. The governor clearly stated that senior policewomen should periodically visit such boarding schools in the district and interact with girl students, away from teachers and other staff, Salunkhe said.
On October 26, the governor followed this up with a letter to the chief minister. “It has come to my notice that incidents of sexual harassment of the girl students and also some incidents of suicides had occurred at tribal boarding schools in the past few years. A team of senior lady officers may be constituted at state level, which can be supported by teams at district and block level which may comprise of lady officers of appropriate ranks,” the governor wrote in his letter. These teams may conduct periodical visits to each and every tribal boarding school and may take all the steps necessary in this regard, the letter saiod. Under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution, the governor has powers and rights to supervise administration in schedule areas and tribal areas.
Despite this, a team of women officers was set up only after the Buldhana rape came to light with complaints coming in that five more girls from the same school were also most likely sexually assaulted.
On Friday, Fadnavis said the state social justice and women and child development department have been directed to create a group of women officers and visit all tribal boarding schools. “The group will talk to the girl students to ascertain the real situation. The exercise will help us find out how many boarding schools are not following the rules and the government will cancel their registration,” Fadnavis told reporters.
On Saturday, the tribal boarding school in Buldhana was shut down, even as four others, including a former sarpanch of the village, were arrested in the case.
Dr Salunkhe committee report also suggested security arrangements such as compound walls at boarding schools, full-time female hostel superintendent and a protection policy. It has also opposed Urine Pregnancy Test (UPT) being conducted by boarding schools on girl students after their return from long vacations. Instead, the report has suggested proper counselling and life skill education for girl students.