The recently released Tamil film on OTT media, ‘Ponmagal Vandhal’, draws attention to the issue of increasing incidences of child sexual abuse and ends with a strong message about Childline 1098 as well as POCSO, timing well with the increase in child abuse during the lockdown period.
With studies (Child Abuse Study 2007 by Government of India) showing that 1 in 2 children in India experience some form of sexual abuse, it is critical that measures for prevention of child sexual abuse be taken up not just by the government but also by other stakeholders at the ground level, which includes schools, communities and society at large. One of the primary strategies that is most effective in the prevention of child sexual abuse is school-based educational programmes.
Swati Amar meets Lalitha Chandrasekaran, Co-Founder & Director of Ramana Vidyalaya, Chennai, who says, “One of my goals is that Ramana Vidyalaya becomes a model school as far as child safety education and child protection are concerned.” Ramana Vidyalaya offers child safety education for all its students.
What do you think are the responsibilities of a school with regard to child safety?
I believe that broadly a school has the responsibility to educate all stakeholders about child development, child safety and how to create the right environment for children to feel safe.
To break this down further, the school must:
- Have a strong child protection policy with a clear code of conduct for the staff (teaching and non-teaching). This ensures that there are no grey areas with respect to what a staff can and cannot do.
- Have a strong induction programme for all the new recruits to ensure that they are aligned with the ethos around child safety.
- Conduct ongoing training programmes for its staff on child safety.
- Conduct personal safety education classes for the students (from KG to class XII).
- Orient the parents on child safety, and support them with parenting and issues related to their children, so that child safety is not compromised.
- Work with child safety experts, NGOs and other external stakeholders.
Do you believe it is important for schools to do due diligence before recruitment of teachers, non-teaching staff, drivers of school buses and others? Is it being done by schools? Does your school do this?
Absolutely. It must be done by all schools and organisations. There is an option in which police verification can be done for any new recruit. This is something that we do. We also do reference checks with the previous employer to check for quality and conduct of the new recruit.
However, in the long-term, we need to move to a place where reference checks related to child safety can be done by checking an online registry, where known offenders and abusers are blacklisted. This is something that is done in a few countries abroad.
(India also has a sex offenders’ registry maintained by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), which contains information such as the name, residential address, Aadhaar number, fingerprints and even DNA samples of the offenders. However it lacks legislative basis and its functionality is not clear.)
|Sensitisation measures & other steps taken by the school|
|Children||-Child safety sessions from KG to class XII|
-Anonymous safety surveys that children fill once a year to measure how safe they feel in school (inside the classroom, ground, bus, etc.)
|Parents||-Orientation sessions to talk about child safety, adolescence, and the role of parents and guardians in ensuring child safety|
-Providing each parent with a guide to child safety and cyber safety
|Staff (teaching and non-teaching)||-Induction training programme for new recruits|
-Ongoing training on child safety and child development
-Training of select members to conduct child safety sessions for students
-Behaviour management workshops
|Infrastructure||-Cameras at appropriate locations on the campus |
-Cameras and GPS in all buses (as per government order)
-Posters on bullying, safety and abuse in all the classrooms and corridors.
Do you believe sex education is important in schools? If so, when do you think is the right time to start this?
The concept of sex and sexuality is still taboo in India. This is because nobody talks about it in schools and there is a lot of awkwardness when the topic is brought up. There can be a variety of issues because of this: poor body image, sensationalising sex and sexuality, bullying and in extreme cases, abuse and rape. If schools do not broach this topic in the classrooms, students will find out from the Internet, social media or through rumours, which can lead to mixed and false messaging.
A clear, progressive sex education curriculum can do a lot of good in improving children’s self-worth, build respect for each other and make them realise that sex and sexuality are a very normal part of life. I think the right time to start is when children go through puberty. As there is no fixed age when a child starts puberty, anywhere from 6th to 7th grade would be a good time to start these classes.
Does your school have counsellors? Do you believe it is important for every school to have counsellors to monitor the psychological status of children?
Yes, our school does have a counsellor. Wellness is one of the school values, and the emotional, mental and physical wellbeing of our children and staff are of utmost importance. We have found the presence of a counsellor extremely useful. The children open up to her a lot, and we are able to quickly identify children who are bullied or troubled. This helps us intervene and ensure course correction before the problem reaches tipping point.
Furthermore, the counsellor is able to navigate through the problems that the children face and provide them with solutions that are tried and tested based on research, which definitely help them to become emotionally and psychologically well-adjusted.
Schools must orient the parents on child safety too, and support them with parenting and issues related to their children.
How do you think the mind-set of children coming from homes that practise patriarchy can be changed?
This one is difficult as no matter how much work is done in and during school, ultimately, if the child goes home and finds patriarchal practices to be the norm, the work done in school will be undone. However, it is possible when everyone works together – the parents/guardians, the school and the child.
During the personal safety sessions, we have conversations with children about gender biases, about why it’s important to not differentiate based on gender, caste or religion and focus on their skills and intelligence. If we do, however, see strong evidence of patriarchal mindset in a child, we first have an individual conversation with the child to understand its root cause. If need be, the parents are called in so that we may understand the family context better and counsel appropriately.
I do believe and hope that if schools continue educating children about gender equality well, the next generation of families and society will not experience patriarchal practices and mindset.