Child safety lies at the very bottom of our social agenda. We need to prioritise it urgently.
Two recent incidents of child rape within school premises — one in Phulwari Sharif in Patna last week and the other in Chhapra district in Bihar just two months ago — bring back exactly the same sinking feeling we had experienced a few months ago, when the gangrape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Kathua shook the very core of the Indian psyche.
These are not isolated cases, in fact, far from it. Many equally brutal cases have been reported almost on a regular basis —Unnao, Deoria, Muzaffarpur, unfortunately, this list can be dragged on endlessly.
All of these incidences go on to prove one single point — child safety lies at the very bottom of our social agenda, and it keeps getting severely compromised every other day at every possible place.
The safety of children has often been found to be the most compromised in schools. (Photo: Reuters/file)
The fact that in both the Patna and Chhapra cases, the headmaster and assistant teachers were booked as the prime accused, demands further attention. Children spend most of their time at home, and then at school. Ideally, then, both should be the safest places for them.
However, ironically, the safety of children has often been found to be most at stake in schools.
In a study conducted by the Ministry of Women and Child Welfare in 2007, it had very clearly emerged that children in the age group of 5-12 years were most at risk of abuse and exploitation. The data showed that two out of every three children were physically abused, 65% of school-going children reported facing corporal punishment (that is two out every three) and 53.22% children reported having faced one or more forms of sexual abuse.
Moreover, 50% of the times, the abusers were persons known to the child, or in a position of trust and responsibility and most children did not report the matter to anyone.
The findings were difficult to digest for many of us. However, it has almost become a trend to find cases of abuse, molestation, bullying and corporal punishment taking place within school premises or in transit to school on a daily basis.
To decode the words safety and protection, it must be mentioned that it is everyone’s responsibility to make sure children are protected and prevented from any potential harm, abuse or damage.
We take a lot of things for granted when it comes to protecting our children. We still see overcrowded school vans, children crossing roads unsupervised, school buses over-speeding, adults with three half-sleepy, helmetless children on bikes, open pits, live wires, dilapidated buildings and open water tanks on school premises, midday meals being cooked right in the school corrido —the list can go on and on.
Adults ferrying several children, all without helmets, on two-wheelers are a common sight in India. (Photo: Twitter)
Parents still don’t think twice before investing blind trust in friendly neighbours to drop their children to school, and school authorities still recruit school staff and security personnel without proper background checks.
School teachers use corporal punishment, affecting children’s psyche deeply. Everyday bullying in classrooms and school premises seems to have become a norm. The availability of school counsellors or any other mechanism to offer psychosocial care is still a distant dream.
Boundary walls of most school premises are completely porous, and shops selling tobacco and other harmful things that children would be tempted to consume are readily available close to schools. Indeed, everywhere, there are potential threats to child safety!
Every child is at risk of harm, bullying, exploitation or physical and sexual abuse. These safety risks can arise from people (adults as well as children), from infrastructure, from activities and interactions of children in their environment, and through any other lapse in a safety / security process.
We as adults must understand that the school going age is a very vulnerable period, and we have a challenging task at hand to shape our young population.
It is time that school safety protocols, prevention programmes and provisions of parental and students’ counseling become part of the learning environment, and are strongly systematised.
We must also be ready to take on newer challenges knocking at the door —exposure to cyber crime, influence of adult and peer behaviour, and misinformation being available on fingertips through mobile phones.
In the recent past, we have seen a series of guidelines issued by various departments — the MHRD, ministry of transport and highways, National Institute of Disaster Management, etc.
After the infamous Gurugram school murder — where seven-year-old Pradyuman Thakur was killed inside the school toilet — the Supreme Court had asked the Centre to frame safety guidelines for all schools, public as well as private.
The National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) has also released a Manual on Safety and Security of Children in School in 2017, which largely looks at all the aspects of protection and adopts from various previously existing guidelines.
Delhi, Haryana, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Odisha are among states that have come out with safety guidelines for schools.
While this is a welcome step and should be executed without dilution or delay, one should remember that beyond rules, there is another huge battle at hand — one of changing mindsets and looking at children’s protection as serious business.
A strong will and rigorous monitoring system is required to implement such safety guidelines.
With this, there is a great need to bridge the gap in training and sensitisation among all staff and stakeholders who come in contact with children. The need is that of taking measures on war-footing — conducting trainings and refresher courses, investing in additional resources wherever required, and not just looking at stronger locks on gates, installing CCTV cameras and hiring more security personnel.
For every safety lapse, we pay a huge price. The amount of investment in minimising these risks is also huge, but that investment cannot wait.
Our programs with parents and responsible adults at CRY – Child Rights and You, emphasises on the need to communicate with the children and becoming sensible and attentive adults.
Parents need to take time out to be with family and get involved with children; not to suspect, but keep watching the child; listen, understand and develop trust with them; trust them and make them feel most important.
Parents must stay involved with children — watch them without snooping on them. (Photo: Reuters/file)
It is also important to keep an eye on transportation and all public spaces frequented by children (school buses, tuition centres, hobby classes, playgrounds etc.)
Parents and guardians must stay in contact with the school authorities and teachers. They must also ask for school safety policies and regulations, and not hesitate to speak up if they have any concern regarding the safety of children.
Attending parent/teacher meetings on a routine basis and talking about the child’s daily activities in school surely helps in bridging the gap between parents and teachers. Of course, all of this should be done in a very sensitive and child-friendly manner.
We as adults and society fall short in recognising that child abuse is a result of a myriad of causes, factors and myths.
Thinking that it doesn’t happen, trying to sweep it under the carpet, being silent about it, assuming that everyone, including the child, will forget about it sooner or later, worsen the issue.
We must make efforts to understand children, listen to them, acknowledge their discomforts and be aware of legalities related to child abuse. Assuming that close family circles are safest for children doesn’t help. This myth must be broken.
We as adults must build the trust of the child, shed the tendency of silencing the issue and make the child believe that they will be heard and protected after any disclosure of abuse.
The solution therefore, lies in prevention of child abuse, equipping schools to ensure safety of children, empowering children, parents and society to avert and stop the acts that has harmful, deep rooted, disruptive and long term effects on the psyche of a child and society at large.