The recent rape of a nine-year-old class four schoolgirl within the premises of her primary school - a Delhi-government run institution - on July 17 is a shocking reminder that sexual violence and harassment in and around school is emerging as one of the significant factors behind the gender gap in education. According to Amnesty International's 2008 report, 'Safe Schools: Every Girl's Right, All Over the World', violence and harassment in and around schools keeps innumerable girls out of school. The report indicates that even in the best of circumstances young girls suffer numerous forms of psychological violence and participate only partially in school life.
Significantly, the Millennium Development Goals, which have been adopted by over 190 countries in 2000, do not factor in the significance of dealing with violence against girls in its call for universal primary education and gender equality. The Amnesty report calls for the state to take urgent notice of this violence that denies girls their basic human right to education. And though a number of initiatives have been taken to address this issue in Latin America and Africa, India lags far behind in ensuring that each girl gets a safe and secure environment to study in.
As found by the Human Development Report (1998), only five countries lag behind India with respect to the gender gap in literacy rates. In fact, the People's Report on Basic Education (1999) - prepared by a team of researchers based at the Centre for Development Economics, Delhi, and other institutions - had even found that no country in the world has a higher male-female gap in literacy than the state of Rajasthan.
The prevalence of the risk of violence against girls in schools is perhaps one of the main reasons for this gap. Factors such as distance from school, educational expenses and inadequate infrastructure that plagues most Indian schools increase this risk, states the Amnesty report.
Although both boys and girls experience violence in school, the sexual violence and harassment directed at girls is far more pervasive and has a more serious impact on their education, both in the short and long term. It is unfortunate that many girls come to accept such violence as the price they have to pay for their education.
Teachers and peers are not the only perpetrators of violence in schools; administrators and even outsiders encountered on the way to the school are major threats. In male-dominated settings, the possibility of sexual harassment in and on the way to school acts as a deterrent to sending girls to school, especially when they reach puberty. These apprehensions are particularly strong in villages that do not have facilities for schooling beyond the primary level.
In urban settings, the sexually charged rumor campaigns, now increasingly via the Internet and mobile phones, often target female students. Such 'cyber-bullying' is on rise in many countries and India also figures on this list. This form of harassment is much more intrusive than face-to-face bullying. Technologically savvy forms of harassment permit a cloak of anonymity to their perpetrators, thus making it difficult to curb the menace.
Both male and female teachers across different societies have been found to overlook the conduct of boys when it is disruptive of the girls' attempts to participate in classroom activities. The use of explicit and embarrassing language, targeting girls, too, seems to not be discouraged.
A disturbing finding of the report is that male teachers in many parts of the world take advantage of their powerful position vis-'-vis young girls and engage in inappropriate and intimidating behavior. In some countries, the sexual relations of girls with male teachers are so common that a special vocabulary has evolved to describe it. For instance, in Togo in West Africa, the term 'notes sexuellement transmises' describes the good marks attained by a girl as a consequence of a sexual relationship with a teacher; and another term - BF, or 'bordello fatigu'e', denotes the fatigue of a girl exhausted as a result of having had sex with several teachers.
India also has a dubious track record in this regard, with reports of teachers and principals raping and molesting girls not being uncommon. A case of the stripping of young girls to discover which of them was menstruating has been reported from Dindigul, Tamil Nadu, in November 2004, to the Tamil Nadu State Commission for Women. Reports of sexual abuse of girls in schools run by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) surface with disturbing regularity. And the wholly inappropriate solution to this violation suggested by the MCD is to keep male teachers out of girls' schools. Another common response is for schools to impose dress codes on girls and stricter restrictions on their physical mobility.
Another disquieting find has been that girls from the minority and marginal communities as well as those located in conflict-torn areas face more serious forms of violence. And predictably, in such conditions, the education of boys is always given priority.
Unfortunately when it comes to reporting abuse and seeking redress, the world over, girls have been conditioned not to complain. The report notes boys are usually encouraged to be active and aggressive, but girls are expected to be demure. They are thus discouraged from reporting sexual overtures and teasing.
Most schools do not even have an established mechanism of reporting and handling gender-based violence. In India, while not many formally report such abuse, those who do are not assured of any action. And, in most cases, the offending teachers usually go unpunished or are, at the most, transferred!
Solutions to this grave problem are many - provided authorities are willing to pay heed to some of the suggestions made in the report. A prohibition of all forms of violence against girls through enactment and enforcement of appropriate laws, policies and procedures, is one of the foremost recommendations. Confidential and independent reporting mechanisms, effective investigations, criminal prosecutions when appropriate, and services for victims and survivors are also vital to combat the menace. Also, the development and enforcement of codes for conduct for all school staff and students, as well as the training of staff in early intervention strategies is a must.
Provision of sex-segregated toilets, supervised playgrounds and sports fields are recommended as compulsory. Schools also need to provide adequate support services and counseling for girls, who have suffered violence. Significantly, the report suggests that the barriers to girls' access to school will be removed by eliminating all fees for primary school and by making secondary schools accessible to all, especially those from marginalized groups.
In the light of these, the Madras High Court's recommendation of formulating an independent and confidential monitoring system in schools to prevent sexual abuse - in April this year Justice K.N. Basha recommended this while denying bail to a teacher accused of sexually harassing a 13 year old girl - is definitely a positive move.