Rani, 7, a class 3 student of Kendra Vidyalaya School in Ashok Nagar, Chennai, was talking to her classmates as their teacher was absent when suddenly a lungi-clad man entered her room and forcibly carried her out.
Rani was taken to the school laboratory where she was sexually abused in the presence of a woman teacher. When a stunned Rani cried out in pain, they stuffed a cloth into her mouth and threatened to kill her if she told anyone about the incident.
If this is not shocking enough, consider the fact that as many as 91 school children have committed suicide due to physical, mental and sexual abuse during the last five years in Tamil Nadu (Source: Dr Vasanthi Devi, former chairperson of State Commission for Women).
These startling revelations came up during a recent public hearing on sexual abuse, corporal punishment and all forms of torture and neglect of children in schools and hostels in Tamil Nadu.
The hearing, which was held in January in Chennai by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) in the presence of state education and police department officials, was in response to an appeal from a coalition of 20 Tamil Nadu-based non governmental organizations (NGOs). The jury, led by NCPCR chairperson Shantha Sinha, comprised Dipa Dixit, member NCPCR; Justice H. Suresh, former judge, Mumbai High Court; Ashutosh Dharmadhikari, advocate, Nagpur Bench of Mumbai High Court; Dr Vasanthi Devi, former chairperson, State Commission for Women; and Dr S. S. Rajagopalan, educationist. Over 50 students from about 40 schools in the state, along with their parents and relatives, voiced their grievances.
Of the 53 cases heard, 19 were about the death of children due to suicide or negligence; 26 were about infliction of corporal punishment in schools of which in 10 cases the children had committed suicide; and there were eight cases of rape/sexual assault.
"All forms of corporal punishment and abuse are a fundamental breach of human rights. Corporal punishment in schools, both government and private, is illegal. But it is deeply ingrained as a tool to discipline children and as normal action. A slap is as detrimental to the child's rights as grievous injury. Condoning so called 'small acts' actually leads to gross violations. The responsibility in safeguarding children from punishment lies equally with the school's teachers, education administration at all levels as well as all those responsible for management," said Sinha.
Unfortunately, most of the cases the jury heard had either been hushed up or given a ruling in favor of the offenders. In fact, it's the arrogance of power, lack of compassion and denial of rights that led Baby to suicide.
Sisters Surbhi and Baby (names changed), students of class 10 and 9, respectively, were studying at the Kaverirangan Higher Secondary School. When Surbhi fractured her hand after she was brutally beaten by her teacher, the parents filed a formal complaint with the school headmistress and the District Educational Officer (DEO). However, Surbhi's father agreed to a compromise with the authorities on the assurance that there would be no violence against his children in the future.
However, it turned out to be a false promise, as not only was Baby, a good student, victimized, she was also threatened with demotion. In fact, she was failed in her final exam. Shocked, her parents decided to withdraw her from the school. When Baby and her mother went to collect the transfer certificate, the Head Master refused to give it and abused them in front of everyone. After returning home, a traumatized Baby hanged herself in the prayer room on June 21, 2007. Although a complaint has been filed in the police station, no action has been taken against the persons responsible for her death so far.
In the case of Vani, 12, the police and school management of Hindu Nadar Higher Secondary School in Virudhunagar district ganged up to intimidate and prevent her from complaining against the brutal punishment meted to her said Balu, father of the class 6 student.
Balu, who testified at the hearing, said that his daughter was beaten with a branch of a coconut tree by her class teacher for not studying a poem. After that she was taken to the staff room where other teachers joined in slapping her repeatedly. Unable to take the physical torture, Vani fainted. When she regained consciousness she was told by her classmates that she was administered two bottles of glucose intravenously in the teacher's staff room, while she was in a state of semi-consciousness.
Vani's parents got to know about the incident only after a few days. Although they filed a complaint with the Thalavaipuram Police Station in Virudhunagar with the help of People's Watch, a Madurai-based NGO, no action has been taken yet.
After hearing out the victims, the NCPCR, which used its powers of a civil court to summon the District Collector, Superintendent of Police (SP), and education officer of each district to the hearing, has directed the DOE and police to reinvestigate and process the cases.
It has recommended that in any case of child sexual abuse, if the parent withdraws the case, the government must take cognizance of the offence. It must take strict action against the accused without harming the child. More importantly, it directed that every case of suicide be treated as 'abetment of suicide', and the management of the institution be held accountable. In case of suicide, sexual harassment or hospitalization arising out of assault at the hands of the teacher(s), the accused be suspended pending enquiry.
The NCPCR has said that the institution (school/hostel/children's home) should be held responsible for the welfare of the children enrolled with it. Therefore, it will be held responsible for any case of injury, ill-health, assault or death of the children. Also, the management has to pay compensation in the event of death, injury or hospitalization of any child due to an incident within the institution.
While these recommendations will go a long way to protect children, it will need greater partnership between parents, teachers and school authorities to ensure the recommendations are implemented in their true spirit so that the students are allowed to enjoy learning, fearlessly.