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On a Sunday morning, I woke up to a plethora of messages on social media about the increased outrage amongst parents in Gurgaon against a top school of India. The issue concerned the murder after an attempt to sexual assault of a 7 year old child within the school premise by a bus conductor. With no other available option, I had to browse through media channels to get the latest update. For a minute I wondered, if the haste could be shown by the media and society at large on these issues during normal times as well.

Nevertheless, my point here is not to comment on the functioning and ethics of news channels but on the trajectory a society follows whenever an issue is popped up. Looking at the past incidences, I am not really confident of a continuous public discourse on children’s issues. I hope I am proven wrong here.

The magnitude of Child protection issue and sexual abuse in particular hasn’t surfaced recently in our country, but gained attention now largely because of availability and accessibility of internet and instant message sharing amongst people and in ways through passage of POCSO Act and subsequent guidelines by government andawareness campaigns by NGOs.

For those not much acquainted with the magnitude of the issue, quoting Women and Child Development Ministry’s data from Study on Child Abuse in 2007, India has the world’s largest number of Child Sexual Abuse cases; for every 155th minute a child less than 16 years is raped, for every 13th hour a child under 10, and one in every 10 children sexually abused at any point of time. While a previous UNICEF’s survey stated that in India, every second child is being exposed to one or the other form of sexual abuse and every fifth child faces critical forms of it, a recent survey of a sample of 45,844 respondents by World Vision India an NGO, also reiterates one in every two children in the age group of 12-18 years is a victim of child sexual abuse and one in five don’t feel safe due to the fear of being sexually abused. It is also crucial to note that in majority of cases, the child is known to the perpetuator and there may remain underreporting of the cases.

The incident in question brings into limelight the risks that children face and a larger issue of “Schools being safe spaces for children”. While parents look for the ‘best’ schools for their children, this best is mostly defined in terms of available facilities, quality learning and environment and the school’s performance in board exams. The participation of parents is (willingly) reduced to attending PTA meetings or to the mostfollowing up on home assignments leaving their children to the mercy of school taking management decisions. The school is itself not forthcoming on including the diverse voices. Unfortunately, the relationship has become more power and money driven in majority of the institutions. The situation is worse in low cost private schools which not only don’t have quality learning but suffer from unsafe physical infrastructure. The comprehensive concept of safe schools is yet to arrive in these mushroomed schools. The State government schools are no better with narratives of physical beating and humiliation being quite common amongst children despite a blanket ban on corporal punishment under the RTE Act 2005.

While the current case demands timely justice, if there is at all for the parents; this case along with others which were not highlighted in the media but took place on similar days, such as rape of a 5 year old girl in East Delhi or a school bus that crushed 6 year old girl after dropping her home should stay as nerve wrecking in the minds of individuals and must remain a starting and an active milestone for individuals and community to bring about and push for the changes at their and at the systemic level. I have heard similar response or rather a question by people, on what they could do with these cases.In fact, each stakeholder has a vital role to play in protection and responding to the rights and needs of children for Children Can’t Wait.

Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Rules, 2007 mandates every school to abide by guidelines issued by the Centre and the states for the prevention of sexual abuse of children. Even now, the schools remain unaware of the guidelines. The State thus not only needs to make aware and disseminate the guidelines to the schools but also make sure that the guidelines are adhered with. The monitoring committee needs to be made active not only on paper but in its true spirit and functioning.

State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR), set up in each State to promote, protect and defend child rights needs to monitor the set of rules established by the State to be followed in schools. And if there is none, it is their mandate to provide the ‘recommendations’ for the necessary action to be taken. SCPCR should be open in taking the support of the NGOs to be their extending hand for disseminating awareness on children’s issues, bring up cases of abuse to them.

Schools need to form ‘child safeguarding policy’, build mechanism for its implementation and strengthen the capacity of its staff (teaching and non-teaching), children and parents and associated stakeholders (vendors) on the awareness and the usage of the policy. Specific sessions on abuse prevention and reporting should be a part of life skills/sports/arts classes. Little interventions such as ‘buddy system’, ‘anonymoussuggestion/complain boxes’ have shown multi-faceted effectiveness. Schools taking these steps, though low investment can help build and maintain their repute and sensitivity towards children.

Parents of their school going children independently or if a part of school management committee need to make an extra effort of monitoring the school functioning and raising collective voices regularly. An open atmosphere at home for discussion and sharing on issues by children needs to be created. Gone are the days when discussion on sex was considered a strict no-no.

Last but more importantly, NGOs and civil society groups such as child rights lawyers are important stakeholders since they play multifaceted roles due to their positioning and influencing power and capacity in the society. From being the watchdog of the implementation of guidelines/protocols, raising awareness amongst communities on preventing child abuse, to raising issues and pushing for the State agencies to bring culprits to justice, it is important for all the NGOs, working directly on children or without to keep the ‘protection issue’ at the core of their development spectrum strategy than bucket it for other specialized child rights NGO to take the momentum forward.

For the present case, society and media at large needs to maintain a hue and cry to keep the issue burning, bring into forefront through narratives, pictures and complaints of cases that may have gone unnoticed, hold discussions in your welfare associations/community groups to bring measures for ensuring child protection in your area. In my organization’s words, DO ANYTHING WHAT IT TAKES TO REACH TO THE LAST CHILD. SINCE CHILDREN CAN’T WAIT.

Mahima Sukheja is working in the Development Sector, in an International Organization on children’s issues. She has got Masters Degree in Social Work from Tata Institute of Social Science, Mumbai six years back. She likes to travel and learn about varied cultures. She can be reached out at mahima.tiss@gmail.com  

 

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