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A teenage girl gang-raped by seniors in a Dehradun boarding school has been denied admission in many other private schools. How responsible are schools and school staff for her plight?
A good many years ago, when I walked the corridors of my school to report being bullied for my appearance, I ran into one of my “favourite” teachers at the time. But she laughed my complaint off and told me to be a sport. Looking back, try as I might, I couldn’t possibly imagine how being a sport about sexually inappropriate comments shaming my body is any strategy, at all. And yet, as an adult, I find myself struggling to reconcile with my self-esteem, my appearance, and my own quest to speak out about abusive behaviour meted out to me. And this is just one example of how long-lasting callousness on part of a school/teacher can be, in addressing sexual violence faced by a child.
Worse instances have unfolded: the rape of a tenth grader by her seniors in a school in Dehradun was met with threats to throw the child out of a school; the rampant and unabashed sexual abuse of a child at the hands of a teacher, a dance teacher who sexually abused a child on a repetitive basis – to name a few. The trouble is not with the children’s incapacity to speak up, but rather, on part of the ones who should be doing the listening and the responding.
Childhood and adolescence are formative phases in life. With a range of influences from all directions coming at young people, it is but important that their exposure, development, and growth takes place in a safer space to encourage their mental, emotional, and physical well-being. Given that they are in a phase of life that is prone to a heady mix of curiosity and experimentation, young people need highly dedicated support and care around them, with the constant guarantee of a safe space. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a country to create the resources necessary for it.
In light of myriads of incidents of child sexual abuse, trafficking, and child pornography, the onus on primary caregivers of children is heavier than ever before. While most discourse speaks to parental responsibility, very few conversations address the duties of schools and teachers – who play guardian for several hours on any given day. There are many haunting stories of schools turning hostile: right from teachers themselves being perpetrators, to instances where schools have refused to take action to support the needs of a child in danger. And now, more than ever, where children are exceptionally vulnerable, the need for schools to consciously strive to be safe spaces is tremendously important.
Safety over academics
As a first step, schools should prioritize safety over academics. One more engineer isn’t as necessary as one more safe childhood. Both parents and teachers must concentrate on ensuring their children’s all-round emotional, physical, and mental security. This will enable a culture of zero tolerance to violence, abuse, and harassment, and the culture of silence will no longer prevail, enough to abet adolescent curiosity to turn into abusive behaviour.
Part of this transformation involves the acknowledgment of the complicity that schools have been in not playing its part to safeguard their children’s security.
Equip staff to respond
Second, all staff, both teaching, and non-teaching must be equipped to respond to incidents when reported, or when suspected. Teachers must be sensitized to understand how to respond, to prioritize child safety, to believe the child, and to gently address the needs of the child when they choose to report an incident. Avoiding shaming or isolating the child, or even outing the child to their peers are major requirements.
Teachers should also be equipped to recognize if there’s something wrong in a child’s life – because sometimes, it helps to listen to what they’re not saying.
Zero tolerance policy
Third, schools must not only place a zero tolerance policy on paper but must action it, in dealing with abuse. The fundamental belief that all truth is actionable must motivate the school’s response, alongside the firm conviction that no one is above the law.
A strong network of parents and teachers must work hand in glove to address abuse, should it happen, and ensure that strong action is taken against the perpetrator.
Finally, constant vigilance is an absolute necessity. Much like the #MeToo movement has shown, predators come in all kinds of shapes, sizes, and guises. They prey on silence, innocence, and fear. It is easy to silence a child, and easier still to dismiss a child’s allegations – but only a sound mechanism of trust, support, and respect for the victim, no matter their age and gender, can address this culture of violence.
Image Source – Still from the movie Mom.
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