TAMIL NADU: Battle against Child Sexual Abuse
EXTENDED pandemic crisis has disrupted the lives of millions and we understand that its impact is not the same for all. In the midst of this crisis, rising cases of sexual harassment of school children are being reported in Tamil Nadu. This shocking reality hit the public consciousness after a few teachers were accused of sexually harassing girl students by alumnae of not just one school but from some of the most reputed schools in Chennai like Padma Seshadri Bala Bavan (PSBB), Sushil Hari International Residential School, Chettinad Vidyasharam and so on. Before the public outcry against this was even over, hundreds of complaints were filed by students across Tamil Nadu who belong to various other schools. Considering the emergency of the situation CPI(M) Tamil Nadu state committee organised a webinar on June 21 - “How to Prevent Sexual Harassment at Schools” - with the objective of bringing out a charter of demands to be submitted to the state government along with taking this campaign to a wider audience.
This webinar was presided by K Balakrishnan, state secretary of Tamil Nadu committee. He clearly set the stage by laying out the context of the webinar and pointed out that the child sexual abuse is a challenge to our society’s progress. Brinda Karat, CPI(M) Polit Bureau Member inaugurated the webinar. In her inaugural address, she congratulated Tamil Nadu state committee for initiating this discussion. In general, political parties hush away issues pertaining to women and children as they view these social issues as non-political. But this initiative by CPI(M) Tamil Nadu committee has widened the scope to involve larger political coalition and draw their attention towards child sexual abuse (CSA).
The social, political and economic policies followed for more than 25 years in this country have not only lowered the status of women but commodified their bodies and normalised child pornography and cyber-crime. In fact, the advancement in technology has been used in such a way that it has proliferated crimes against women and children particularly. With the continued social stigma and invisibilisation of these crimes, various institutions like schools, homes and hostels are becoming unsafe. The low conviction rates under POCSO, have further catalysed the increase in CSA.
She congratulated the bravery of young women who came out and reported the crime but also cautioned that painting all teachers as sexual abusers is dangerous. In fact, teachers’ unions/associations and the school management committees can play an active role in finding solutions to protect children within the school premises. She argued that the current context points out the need to include “sexual harassment” explicitly under the Right to Education Act, which already recognises mental and physical harassment. She pointed out that POCSO makes police reporting mandatory for CSA but in cases of sexual harassment, some may not like to take the police route and with the lack of protection for the victims and the cruelty of the processes, reporting the crime should not become punishment to the survivors. She concluded that it is imperative to understand that the child should be the centre of all these discussions.
IN CONTROLLING CSA
Most of the speakers observed critically the ineffectiveness of various existing state level committees and institutions. Starting from Tamil Nadu State Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (SCPCR) to village level protection committees, both the central and the state governments have numerous governmental bodies under various policies for the protection of child rights. The primary responsibility of these bodies is to prevent CSA and protect children. But the functioning of all these committees is not satisfactory. Most of the heads or members of these committees are politically appointed, who not only lack in knowledge about child rights but also the courage to curb CSA.
One of the important means to safeguard children from CSA is to implement the existing laws without any prejudices. The POCSO Act is one of its kind, whose effective implementation could curb this crime immensely. But the failure in doing so has resulted in the opposite ie, an exponential increase in CSA. Various provisions under POCSO have never been implemented or are effectively bypassed. The mandatory ICC committees in all schools, installation of complaint boxes, regular checking of complaints, provisions to punish the teachers or the officials who did not take action upon the complaint of CSA, have not been implemented even to a basic minimum level. The failure of judiciary in terms of time bound judgement (in this case within six months), in ensuring protection to the victim and dissuading traumatic enquiry process on the contrary have certainly discouraged the survivors to fight for justice. The worst is the enforcement machineries who continue to be insensitive towards CSA complaints and instead socially stigmatise the victims.
Schools for children, as a space of happy learning, have terribly failed. Privatisation of education has ruined the teacher student relationship. Marks and market-based teaching orientation, digital/smart classroom etc are being given priority at the expense of quality education in order to compete in the school market. Privatisation has derailed the schools from fulfilling their role of imparting modern and democratic values such as gender equality, free and fearless speech, scientific temper and nurturing violence free society. Most of the schools have not only failed to form an ICC but have also silenced those who complain against CSA.
All the panellists, while critically pointing out the failures of the state machineries, also discussed various possibilities to combat CSA. Most of them proposed how the state, the society, political parties, various social movements and child rights activists could work together to make schools a better place for children and to control CSA. Most of them expressed their concern on the ineffective implementation of POCSO. They proposed effective and integrated functioning of various state and district level committees and concerned departments to monitor the protection of children in schools, not just within school campuses but in all the places where children are present including hostels, homes, sports and cultural centres, etc. Trained authorities as well as child rights activists who are well versed in all the dimensions of child development should be made heads and members of various state formed committees.
To ensure safe and fearless reporting of CSA through ICC, not just the installation of complaints boxes, (some argued that it is a failed model) but training and encouraging children to speak out is needed. And for that an external complaint mechanism was proposed, where the children can complain even outside the school. Regular and consistent training workshops for teachers, non-teaching staff, state and enforcement personnel (police, education department, health department), judiciary, school administration parents and children were also emphasized. The necessity for a system to file and document the abuser’s details by maintaining a register, which could be used to verify before appointing teachers in schools was also raised during the discussion. The alleged teacher should be barred from teaching or evaluating the students and they should be placed in positions in which they do not have any access to the students.
The state has to come out with a ‘Child Rights Policy’ and this should voice out clearly the indicators and protocol to be followed in all schools and various other institutions. The need for making it mandatory to appoint a counsellor at schools to counsel the children in various aspects, peer counselling methods, gender sensitisation as part of educational syllabus, workshops for students which includes age-appropriate sex education and awareness of the provisions under POCSO should be taught to students.
The role of the schools is very crucial. It is the primary responsibility of the schools to ensure safe learning spaces for children. So, it is high time they accept the reality of CSA and take appropriate measures to combat CSA than hiding the issue and ensure the necessary protocols to be followed under POCSO by all schools. Schools should display various awareness slogans prominently in their premises which clearly state that CSA is a punishable crime. The state should ensure all the government orders be applicable to private schools and the affiliation of the schools should be cancelled if they do not follow the mandatory procedures.
POCSO special courts should be formed in all districts. Till then, specific days in a week to be allocated for a speedy trial of POCSO cases. It is also imperative to understand the reasons for lager number of acquitted cases, and huge number of pending cases. The need to study and analyse 100 or so acquitted cases to explore where the system failed was proposed. At the community level, there should be a serious attempt to change the ways in which violence against women, LGBTQI+ and particularly children are seen and understood. And for this the state, social movements and individual activists should constantly think of creative ways to engage with the larger public. Interventions through public arts, campaigns, posters in public places against CSA should be taken up consistently. Most crucial of all is to BREAK THE SILENCE. This would be a good start in the path towards violence free society in general and schools in particular.
Two speakers Arivukarasi (name changed) and Geetha (name changed) shared their experience regarding CSA and how they dealt with the issue with the support of AIDWA. The webinar ended with Vasuki stating clearly various aspects that need to be taken forward. She said that the immediate crucial task is to formulate a charter of demands for the state government and a need for a continuous campaign among the public. K Kanimozhi (MP) from DMK, T Lenin of CPI, child rights activist A Devaneyan, former child protection specialist with UNICEF R Vidyasagar, psychologist W Jasmine, Adv R Vaigai, and Adv Nirmala Rani, Suganthi state secretary of AIDWA, Mariappan state secretary of SFI, Deepa state treasurer of DYFI participated and enriched the webinar.