Disabled Students Fight Sexual Assault

THE 12-day strike by the students of the Model School at the National Institute of Visually Handicapped (NIVH) ended successfully on August 27 with the institute agreeing to all the major demands raised by the students. The institute now has a new director while the principal and the vice principal of the Model School have been removed.

This central government run institute located in the picturesque city of Dehradun was in the news for all the wrong reasons. While the charter of the students listed 31 demands, the main issue however, concerned the manner in which complaints of sexual assaults were dealt with by the officials under whose charge and care these students were. On the basis of allegations about sexual harassment raised by some boys in April 2018, the administration proceeded against one music teacher, while leaving the other. This time, however, the allegations were by a group of girl students against the other music teacher. They alleged that a few of them were groped, their private parts touched and lewd remarks passed. Students complained that though they brought such incidents to the notice of both the principal and other officials, earlier also, no remedial action was taken.

It is only after the strike and media reports that an FIR was lodged against the accused teacher. What is intriguing is that no proceedings have been launched against the other officials for not reporting these offences despite having full knowledge of it, though it constitutes an offence under Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act.

That such reprehensive and repugnant crimes committed by certain perverts can hurt and brutalise the victims and can also result in both short term and long-term harm, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, poor self-esteem, anxiety disorders etc has escaped the minds of the authorities, points to their utter lack of sensitivity in handling such cases. It is unlikely that the institute has a child protection policy, despite the mandate of the POCSO Act. Even if it had one, it has remained on paper only. Likewise, the provisions of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act have also not been invoked. The RPD Act provides for punishment for a person who “being in a position to dominate the will of a child or woman with disability and uses that position to exploit her sexually”.

Students complained that male staff enter the girls hostel at will; doors of many of the washrooms and bathrooms do not have latches; they are prohibited from keeping doors and windows closed etc. Given these settings, students residing within the campus feel that they are overpowered by a sense of insecurity. Do not these amount to sexual harassment?

The transfer of the director and the sacking of the principal and vice-principal are tantamount to an acknowledgement of the gravity of the allegations of the students. However, it is baffling why different yardsticks have been applied to two sets of people. 

Like with several other cases of such nature, the statements of the victims were recorded at the police station. The POCSO Act mandates that such statements should be recorded at their place of ordinary residence or at a place they are comfortable with. Why the authorities at the institute permitted this is equally baffling. More disturbing is the fact that parents were not informed while recording these statements. This again is a procedural lapse. This indicates to a lack of comprehension of the POCSO Act both within the police machinery as well as the officials in charge of such institutions.

That there is a need to have monitoring mechanisms for all such institutions where disabled children or people are housed was one of the demands that the National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled (NPRD) had flagged before the Verma Committee that was constituted to look into criminal laws governing sexual assaults, after the December 2012 gangrape in Delhi. The committee had recommended among other things that the High Courts should act as oversight mechanisms. But this has not happened either. Given the exposure of the horrific happenings in Muzaffarpur, Deoria and the Bhopal cases, and several other cases earlier, it is essential that social audits of such institutions both in the public and private domains be conducted on a regular basis.

These incidents clearly underline that girls and women with disabilities are more vulnerable to exploitation. Considered as soft targets, perpetrators assume that they can get away easily. In many cases, such women are unable to comprehend or communicate about such acts of violence or assaults they face.  Some reports suggest that they are upto three times more likely to be victims of physical and sexual abuse as compared to other women.

Absence of consolidated figures with regard to violence against women with disabilities hampers advocacy and policy initiatives. The NHRC does not maintain such statistics as far as crimes against women/girls with disabilities are concerned.

The manner in which the NIVH issue was handled points out the total absence of sensitivity not just among the officials of the institution but also among the police personnel who handled the case. Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) on dealing with such cases should also refer to the specific needs of women with disabilities, at each stage of the investigation and the role of different agencies.

A two-member team from the NPRD consisting of general secretary Muralidharan and joint secretary Rishikesh Rajli met the students and extended support and solidarity. They were accompanied by state secretary of AIDWA, Indu Naudiyal. On the basis of their interaction with the students, the NPRD addressed a letter to the new director KVS Rao as well as the minister for social justice and empowerment, Thawar Chand Geholt seeking their intervention.

Among other things, the students complained that despite the fact that the institute has a sprawling complex, it lacks a playground; there are no blind-friendly lab equipment; low quality of food served in the mess; non-receipt of pocket money in time; pathetic conditions of the hostels; they not being permitted to opt for maths/science stream or commerce at the higher secondary level etc.

That these young children fought threats and all other coercive tactics during the course of their agitation and stood unitedly braving attempts to split their ranks speaks not only of their resolve and courage but also reflects the pent up anger against the depredations going in their institution for some time. The NPRD along with other disability rights organisations held at demonstration on August 29 at Parliament Street protesting increasing sexual assaults on girls and women with disabilities in the background of the violations at the NIVH.

 

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