Sexual child abuse is making headlines in Bangalore where an English headmaster of an international school has been arrested for making inappropriate comments and advances on the students. As it turns out, Paul Meekin is not just an impostor who got the job under false pretences but a pedophile wanted by the British police.
Within the context of sex abuse in Indian schools, this is a 'good news' story. The parents complained, police took action, as did the school. As a recent Times of India article (unavailable online) reports, in most cases, the scenario plays out something like this: Everyone knows what's happening but keeps mum; parents don't want their children to go through the legal process or endure the social stigma it brings; there is no non-bailable offence under which the perpetrator can be booked; and schools prefer to protect their brand rather than their students. The result: pedophiles enjoy lifelong immunity, free to abuse children over and over again.
Our schools make the Vatican look vigilant in these matters.
Here's a parent who's 10-year-old son was sexually abused:
I was completely shocked to know that my child was facing it in school. More shocking was that even parents don't care. My child's school has still not woken up to it, and is busy improving facilities like the swimming pool and cafeteria. I feel disgusted and disappointed. What do you do when both parents and teachers knew about the ruckus, but chose to seal their lips? As a parent, I don't have any expectation from any school any more. It's best to teach children about it. Let them be on guard and take action instead of depending on adults.
How sad is that? We've placed the burden of protection on the frail shoulders of our children because none of us have the either the courage or the integrity to protect them.
According to The Telegraph, "Some of the most common forms of abuse in India include touching, kissing and fondling with sexual intent, exposing one’s genitals to children or coaxing children to expose theirs, persuading them to have sex and exposing children to pornographic material."
And yet most schools are unwilling to even do the bare minimum – and the state is either uninterested or unwilling to force them to do so. Nina Nayak who chairs the Karnataka Commission for the Protection of Child Rights tells TOI, "Government schools have a School Development Monitoring Committee as per the Karnataka School Education Act, but it does not look into these issues. There should be counsellors and a complaint box for children. A background check for all employees is a must. There's so much trust children have in adults, especially if they're teachers."
The greater irony is that schools are immune from the 1994 Supreme Court judgement that stipulates that all workplaces should have a sexual harassment committee. As Sangeetha Saksena, founder of Enfold Health Trust points out, "Schools are workplaces too" – where the work is the education of children who are placed in their care.
Any such policy, however, ought to extend to all schools that apply for a license to open an educational institution – not just government schools. Abuse is every bit as common in our so-called A-list private schools which are often more zealous in protecting their reputation. A parent whose kid was abused in an international school in Bangalore says, "There are at least 50 such children in my child's school who went through it but no one's bothered."
But as Anuja Gupta, who runs Rahi, an NGO dedicated to fighting child abuse, says in The Telegraph, “Punishment is only a small part. Awareness of the issue and accepting that child abuse is a problem and can happen anywhere are of prime importance. Rahi has offered to hold awareness workshops in Delhi, but was turned away in most cases.
Yes, the government has been unconscionably lax, the schools callous and self-serving. But what about the rest of us? I can't help wonder if this isn't yet another symptom of our blinkered, obsessive attitude toward our child's education. All that matters is to get them into the right school and keep them there. No need to rock the boat just because some teacher "behaved badly," be it with my kid or yours. Let's just sweep it all under the table and keep our eyes on the prize.
Here's the bottomline: each time a predator goes unpunished, the victim is not just that one child but the countless many he will go on to abuse with impunity. Ekka was sexually molested for two years by his warden and teacher in an Asansol school hostel. The warden remained in charge of the boys’ hostel till he retired. In 2011, a government school headmaster was exposed in Madurai district – after he'd abused 97 girls. The police did not register the case until the parents took the streets in protest, which drew the attention of politicians and in turn generated media headlines, leading finally to his arrest.
Yes, we should teach our kids to protect themselves. But it's hypocritical to tell a child to be brave, when we lack the courage to speak up. It's a big boat, but rock it we must.