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For schools to be safe

They must follow some protective protocols that are standard and mandatory.

With increased reporting of such incidents and the fear of a loss of reputation, school managements shy away from either admitting or taking responsibility. With increased reporting of such incidents and the fear of a loss of reputation, school managements shy away from either admitting or taking responsibility.

BY: Bharti Ali and Enakshi Ganguly Thukral

They must follow some protective protocols that are standard and mandatory.

On December 17, 2012, exactly a day after the Delhi gangrape case that shook the country, a three-year-old girl was taken to the toilet of  her play school in Delhi and raped by the owner-principal’s husband. She is not the only child violated in a space considered to be the safest space for children after their homes — the school. This ugly reality has come to light once again with a six-year-old being sexually abused in a school in Bangalore. Every report specified that it took place at an “elite school”, as if such incidents only take place among the poor and this was new. The reality is that child sexual abuse cuts across class, religion, education or ethnicity. It can happen anywhere, including within families. It is imperative that we recognise this and put checks and balances in place.

It is not as if sexual abuse in schools is a new phenomenon. If we look back at our own school days, there was likely a member of the staff who made us uncomfortable. Our discomfort was unaddressed then and this is the case even today, due to a conspiracy of silence around sexual violence and abuse. Abuse is reported even less in the case of schools because of the power relations between educational institutions and students, more so if the parents are poor and illiterate. So we must welcome that some parents are coming out to complain.

It is not easy for parents and children to find the courage to complain, given the cycle of violence they face. Many child survivors and their families are asked by landlords to vacate their homes. Instead of cooperating with children and helping them cope with the trauma, children are subtly pushed out of school. Changing schools is even harder. Traumatised by the abuse, most survivors fall behind in academics, making admission to another school difficult unless the principal is apprised of the circumstances and admission sought on sympathetic grounds, hoping confidentiality will be respected. The system of investigation and judicial process expects the child to recollect and repeat the sequence of events several times, leading to re-victimisation. Little surprise then that parents and child victims choose to keep quiet.

Despite new laws and stringent punishment, there is an increase in sexual crime and little deterrence. For instance, two years on, the December 17 case is still to be decided. We are told that the courts set up under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (POCSO) are “special courts”, while those under the criminal amendment act of 2012 are “fast-track courts”. Are special courts not meant to be fast track?

Poor investigation by the police, lack of adequate victim and witness protection, intrusive and unreliable medical examination, lack of special public prosecutors, poor quality of legal aid and, most importantly, a lack of courts having exclusive charge of POCSO cases are important factors affecting prosecution and resulting in poor conviction rates. Justice becomes more difficult as children do not have the proper legal vocabulary to express their agony, more so if the child has a disability.

With increased reporting of such incidents and the fear of a loss of reputation, school managements shy away from either admitting or taking responsibility. In many ways, child sexual abuse in schools is custodial rape, and hence an aggravated offence. This is clearly recognised by the POCSO act, which has a clause for mandatory reporting, supposedly introduced to address the reluctance of institutions to take responsibility. There must be mandatory standard protective protocols, whose violation would lead to penal action, to make schools safe.

The Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR) developed a set of guidelines for the prevention of child abuse last year. It lays down what schools must do to protect children from sexual abuse through protocols that need to be followed for the recruitment of staff, and details the capacity-building and child protection standards that need to be in place. Primary among them is the framing of a child protection policy applicable to all persons employed by the institution and even visitors. Most importantly, it calls for the setting up of a complaints mechanisms for children, parents and guardians, and appropriate training and orientation for them on the institution’s protection policy and mechanisms to complain.

Rule 31 of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Rules, 2007 requires that every school and other educational institutions abide by guidelines issued by the Centre and the states for the prevention of sexual abuse of children. The Delhi government framed its own rules in 2009, as have some others. On February 13, 2013, in HAQ: Centre for Child Rights vs Union of India, the Delhi High Court directed the state to frame guidelines for effective implementation of Rule 31. Accordingly, the guidelines developed by the DCPCR were placed before the court. One year later, in February, further direction had to be sought from the court to ensure the notification of these guidelines by the lieutenant governor, and their circulation among stakeholders. Yet, most schools in Delhi remain unaware of them.

It is also time that we stopped being squeamish about sex and recognised that if children have to protect themselves, they need age-appropriate information. This has to come from both home and school.

The writers are founder co-directors of HAQ: Centre for Child Rights, New Delhi

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