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Sunday, 5 February 2012

Wolves that make our children run


Wolves that make our children run

Sexual abuse of children in schools is one of India’s best kept secrets. Though some incidents are now coming to light, V. Kumara Swamy says the problem can only be dealt with if there is greater awareness in schools and homes

On weekday evenings after dinner, when other hostellers were getting ready for bed, Bernard Ekka would quietly slip into his hostel room with guilt writ large on his face. His roommates used to tease him about his brief absence after dinner. “They never said anything directly but everybody knew what was happening,” says Ekka, now 36 and working in a pharmaceutical company in Delhi.
For two years, Ekka was sexually abused by his warden and teacher in an Asansol high school hostel. Even today, two decades later, the mental scars refuse to fade. “I don’t know why I was targeted, but psychologically it took me more than 10 years to come out of it. I cannot say that I have come to terms with it fully even today,” he says.
Child sex abuse in schools is one of the best kept secrets in the country. The issue, mostly kept under wraps, emerged once again on January 21, when the Bangalore police arrested Paul Francis Meekan, the headmaster of the Trio World School in Kodigehalli, on charges of sexually abusing a schoolboy. “The parents of the boy alleged in their complaint that Meekan talked about sex with their son and also posted sexual messages on his Facebook account. The accused is currently on bail,” says Puneet Kumar, in-charge of the Kodigehalli police station investigating the case.
The incident comes on the heels of reports from Hyderabad and Madurai on the arrest of teachers accused of sexually abusing students. Professionals working against child sexual abuse say that for every reported incident, there are thousands of cases that remain undisclosed.
In the absence of any specific study on child sexual abuse in schools, people in the sector refer to a survey supported by the NGO Save the Children and the ministry of women and child development. According to the Study on Child Abuse in India 2007, 53.22 per cent of children up to 15 years have been sexually abused. Greater abuse was reported among children between 10 and 15 years. With an estimated 220 million school-going children in India, the number of sexually abused youngsters would be in millions.
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.
The study notes a “conspiracy of silence” around the subject. “The problem in India is that we abhor child abuse but we also somehow have a high tolerance for it,” says Vidya Reddy, founder, Tulir Centre for the Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse, Chennai. “Unless parents and schools openly discuss the issue and encourage children to speak out, we will continue to be in denial.”
Sexual predators are not limited to urban areas. Recently, Chetna Reddy, 14, a budding volleyball player of Andhra Pradesh, was lured to Kurnool, 40km from her village Pagdiyala, by her physical education teacher on the pretext of selecting her for the district team. Reddy managed to escape, but the teacher, convinced that she would not bring up the issue, went to school the next day — only to be arrested by the police.
“It was for the first time that such an incident was reported from a rural area in Kurnool. But the fact is abuse in schools is a reality in both urban and rural areas,” stresses M. Chandra Sekhar, secretary, Sarada Educational Society, Kurnool. Sekhar is an activist on issues related to children and adolescents.
In another incident in the Madurai district of Tamil Nadu, a headmaster of a government school in a rural area was charged with sexually abusing more than 100 children.
“For long, we have only been occupied with child labour or issues that the media throw up. It’s time we came out with guidelines for schools on child abuse,” says a member of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
A section of policy makers has been active. Almost 10 years ago, the Central Board of Secondary Education issued a policy paper on a “Helpline for women and girl students for prevention of sexual harassment related incidents in schools”.
According to experts, sexual abuse interferes with the psychological growth of a child leading to several short and long-term behavioural disorders. The impact ranges from physical symptoms such as gastro problems and urine infection to psychological disorders. A child can become unnaturally quiet, fear stigmatisation, have low self-esteem, feel shame, guilt and depression and show self-harming behaviour.
There are long-term effects too. “Sexual issues like complete withdrawal from any kind of touch or promiscuous behaviour are seen,” says Pooja Taparia, founder and head of Mumbai-based Arpan, which works against child sex abuse. Some of these problems can emerge when the child is growing up.
Ekka, for instance, is still to recover. He says at times his anxiety “borders on paranoia” when he thinks of something similar happening to his two school-going children.
One reason why perpetrators are seldom punished is the weak law in India. “Most laws related to child sexual abuse are clubbed with those related to women. This has not solved the problem. Culprits get away very easily,” says Anuja Gupta, founder and director, Rahi Foundation, which deals with child abuse.
The experts stress the need for greater awareness. “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,” she adds. Gupta, however, was turned away by several schools in Delhi when she offered her organisation’s services on spreading awareness on the issue.
But that’s not always the case. Some schools have adopted an open policy on the issue. “We start educating children at a very young age about the difference between a good touch and a bad touch and closely involve parents and teachers all through,” says Ameeta Wattal, principal, Springdales School, Delhi. “We are very clear that the threat to a child can come from anywhere.”
Reddy of Tulir says whenever schools drag their feet on the issue, parents must demand a code of conduct. “Since children spend a large part of their waking hours in schools, it is their right to have a safe environment,” she says.
The experts stress that the first step against abuse is speaking out. Ekka rues that he never said a word out of fear and guilt. And the warden continued to preside over the boys’ hostel till he retired.
(The names of victims have been changed)