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Teach Consent, Break Culture of Silence: How To Create Safer Schools for Girls

While we are striving to make our education ‘smarter’, we also need to make our educational institutions safer.

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Opinion
4 min read
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News about sexual assaults and harassment in schools raise a relevant question – can educational institutions guarantee the safety of girl students?

In 2021, The Hindu followed the story of students and alumni of at least six schools in Chennai who went public with disturbing allegations. The city police received nearly 200 such devastating complaints.

As a parent and as an educator who oversees the well-being of students of which 65 percent are girls, these stories are immensely triggering.

They remind me of how vulnerable girls are when they travel to different cities to play tournaments, to take part in field trips, or when they travel in school buses or are targeted even in their own school premises in overt and covert ways.

Online abuse is also an emerging crisis and needs to be examined closely and while striving to make our education ‘smarter’, we also need to make our educational institutions safer.

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Acknowledge the Problem and Address It

Most schools lack a stringent code of conduct and sensitisation for teachers as to what they cannot say or do while interacting with students. Our education system forgets that teaching cannot be a one-way path and educators must be educated as well in what is appropriate and inappropriate.

Body shaming, sexualisation of female students through words or gestures, commenting on how a student dresses, sending inappropriate messages, misuse of power, asking for sexual favours, or crossing a physical or emotional boundary must be punished severely.

Schools must set up an Internal Complaints Committee and establish a transparent redressal protocol.

Stringent Hiring Process, Technology Can Bridge Safety Gaps

Those who have the most access to students, including non-teaching staff members like security guards, sweepers, maids, and peons must be screened thoroughly and sensitised to a standardised code of conduct.

School buses are where a lot of mental and physical harassment occurs so a well-trained female attendant, supervisor, GPS tracking systems, and CCTV cameras can make girls feel a lot safer.

The hiring process for any individual in schools, be it in a teaching or non-teaching capacity, must include background checks, evidence if any, of a criminal record, and a process that can identify behavioural and psychological red flags.

In 2017, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) proposed certain safety measures that made police and psychometric verification of the staff mandatory. Visitor Management System and biometric security systems in addition to CCTV cameras on the campus can also help make the campus safer.
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Acknowledge the Divides That Make Rural Girls Vulnerable

The technological safety measures we talk about while discussing the safety of urban schools are inaccessible in rural schools where at times, inadequate infrastructure includes the absence of toilets. Girls often have to come to school from a long distance and each of these factors makes them vulnerable not just within their schools but also every time they step out of their homes.

Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) are the prerequisite conditions in schools to achieve the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, but millions of girls drop out of schools due to a lack of proper sanitation facilities, menstruation guidance and hygiene products.

As per the 2021 National Statistical Office (NSO) data, India’s female literacy is just 70 percent compared to male literacy of 84.70 percent. It is unfortunate that basic safety should be a concern for girl children to enrol in schools.
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Teach Consent and Empower Students

A 2021 media report points out how more than 50 percent of children do not know how to react when faced with violent behaviours from their friends or from strangers. When faced with unfamiliar and dangerous situations, most children don't know how to defend themselves.

Self-defence classes in such a scenario can help students to feel empowered and confident. Regular sessions about what to do when you suffer abuse or see someone else in danger, who to contact, and how to be vigilant can help.

Students also must be made aware of the power of consent and provided a safe space where they can confide in trained counsellors. Even in primary classes, children should be taught to differentiate between good touch and bad touch.

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Break the Culture of Silence

What is disturbing in most cases of systemic abuse is that it goes unaddressed for years because schools are worried more about their reputation rather than the safety of their students.

In the outpouring of complaints that happened last year in Chennai, the lack of institutional empathy or even acknowledgment of what had happened to so many girls was staggering.

The fear of calumny, deep-rooted shame and fear, low conviction rates, and lack of trust in the justice system also contributes to this culture of silence.

The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 applies to girl students at schools and educators must be made aware of the legal ramifications of abuse. If vigilant and well-informed adults at school and home create a protective circle around a child, chances of untoward incidents of abuse will significantly reduce.

(Rajesh Bhatia is an educationist, entrepreneur, and the founder of TreeHouse Education. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  School   Save Girl Child   School Girls 

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