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(Un)safe search of learning

ANUPRIYO MALLICK |

Not long ago, parents would be free from worries when their children left for school early in the morning and returned late in the afternoon. But today, they are very much concerned about the safe return of their little ones. They have been unnerved by the recent cases of child abuse and deaths reported from schools across the country

According to a recent survey by a humanitarian aid organisation, one out of every two children in India has suffered sexual abuse. For a country that is home to 19 per cent of the world’s children, that piece of statistic is heart-rending. Both the home and the school must be safe and secure for our children; on the contrary, however, cases of child abuse, exploitation and violence against the kids have been reported in both these places.

The Government drafted the National Policy for Children 2013 to “build a preventive and responsive child protection system and promote effective enforcement of punitive legislative and administrative measures against all forms of child abuse and neglect”. While we have successfully introduced children-specific legislation, such as the Prevention of Children from Sexual Offences Act 2012 (POCSO) and the amended Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act 2015, our record in creating a robust and reliable preventive response system has been terribly poor. The spate of brutal crimes against children demonstrates that our collective approach to child safety in schools remains ad hoc, laissez-faire and poorly monitored, highlighting the lack of both a soft and hard preventive infrastructure.

It has been estimated that in large cities children spend as long as 8 to 9 hours a day away from home, while those in smaller towns and rural areas spend 5 to 6 hours outside the home. In fact, the number of children in the approximately 1.6 million schools in India is much larger than the population of most countries of the world. We need to develop a Uniform Child Protection Policy for all schools, whether private or government, and even tribal ashramshalas  (residential schools) in remote parts of the country.

It must be conceded that the HRD ministry has comprehensive guidelines that take into consideration the physical infrastructure, notably separate and age-appropriate toilets to ensure the safety of children in school. The rules also cover the terms of engagement of the staff, such as background-checks and the mental make-up. However, these guidelines need to be made mandatory. Compliance is not negotiable.

The policy should emphasise ‘gatekeeping’ to ensure that the recruitment of both teaching and non-teaching staff is done after thorough police verification and psycho-social assessment. Many private and government-aided schools already follow this process, but it must now be made compulsory for all. It should also be mandatory for schools to enrol trained counsellors who can prevent and detect child abuse. He/she could be a teacher who has undergone the requisite training or a separate counsellor. In addition, all teachers need to be sensitised about child abuse; they must be taught to identify the offence, and be made aware of laws such as the POCSO Act which makes reporting such acts compulsory.

Sessions with children on safety and prevention of abuse ought to become part of the curriculum. They need to have a designated point of contact and be assured that there is a safe space where they can speak and be heard.

(The writer is with the Eastern Institute for Integrated Learning in Management (EIILM), Kolkata)