The terrifying news of a six-year old girl’s alleged rape in Bangalore’s posh Vibgyor School at the hands of her own teacher has unleashed tremendous concern about the safety of children in Indian schools. The anxiety is understandable, given the amount of trust parents invest in schools, considering children tend to spend almost eight hours or more in school on any given day. While increased security on the school premises, particularly the use of CCTV cameras is being talked about, it seems equally or more important to involve children in conversations about their own safety.
Akanksha Thakore Srikrishnan, Associate – Strategy, Innovation, Training at R. N. Podar School (CBSE), Mumbai, shares, “We are addressing the issue of safety and sexuality in our school through multiple conversations involving parents and students alike. One, for instance, is a session with mothers of adolescent girls scheduled to take place soon. The dialogue with students takes place within their classrooms, and is often anchored by the class teacher who is closest to them. Apart from that, the life skills instructors in the school are also designing special sessions around good touch-bad touch.”
Last year, the school had invited counsellor and actor Maninee Mishra Dey to lead a session titled ‘What’s the right thing to do?’ for their eleventh and twelfth graders. “It was a really fruitful, stimulating conversation that brought up concerns around support from parents, access to sound information, peer-pressure, choices, and responsibility. The students felt happy to have a channel to open up, share, discuss, and sound out their thoughts without any judgement. Some of them were comfortable discussing issues with their parents whereas there were those who didn’t share that equation and were happy to have the space to talk and listen.”
This emphasis on creating a safe space for children to ask questions is reiterated by Manasvini S. N., who teaches at an international school in Hyderabad, and also facilitates critical thinking programmes for teenagers. She remarks, “I am a firm believer of conversations with children – of all ages – on all matters where they should have agency, and that includes sexuality. I mostly deal with adolescents in school. But even with younger ones, I would talk, and encourage grown-ups to talk as well.”
Is it as simple as it sounds? Do all educators feel equipped to listen to the questions being posed? Do they sometimes feel threatened or embarrassed by the questions students ask? Manasvini says, “Unfortunately, grown-ups have not come to terms with their own sexuality in most cases, so it is imaginably difficult to manage such conversations. Even those grown-ups who are not squeamish about talking about sexuality, can do so only from their own filters of what is appropriate, safe, desirable sexuality.”
She adds, “Even to engage with a child, there are two questions – what do we need to talk about, and how to talk about it. Most adults don’t even know what to talk about, let alone how to talk about it. I think the conversation needs to shift from facts about the human body to what sexual acts are, what they mean, what the physical, mental and emotional consequences of sexual acts are, and the appropriate age range for each kind of sexual act. The follow up to such a conversation would be a how-to tutorial on what to do in the event of an unwelcome sexual event.”
Manasvini says that she has been approached by 13-17 year old students with questions/concerns such as these:
- Is it okay to have multiple partners?
- What’s so wrong with being gay?
- How can anyone really be gay?
- Is it really possible for me to have my emotional and sexual needs fulfilled by the same person? What if one person turns me on while another is emotionally nice to me – what should I do?
- What is masturbation?
- What’s so wrong with watching porn?
- I feel guilty about having kissed/caressed this person (someone their age).
- This person kissed/held me. I know I should be feeling upset, but I enjoyed it. I must be a horrible person.
- What does a condom look like?
The questions that might come from younger students could include some or all of these, or be completely different from this list. Even students of the age group Manasvini is referring to, but from another social milieu or a different kind of school culture, might end up asking questions that are different. In fact, the same set of students might not feel comfortable posing these questions to another teacher in the same school. This is what one seems to gather even from what Akanksha says. How safe, comfortable and not-judged the students feel in their interaction with the individual educator/facilitator seems to matter a lot.
Referring to the list of questions mentioned earlier, Manasvini remarks, “See how limited it would be to talk about body parts and safety procedures when the real burning questions seem to be on these lines – how difficult it is to connect a moral or values-based view with the hormonal one! How difficult the questions themselves could be for most adults to answer! My method is more of creating a non-judgmental environment where I am facilitating reflection, discovery and decision making, rather than providing information or prescribing actions. I fully acknowledge that this method cannot reach all youngsters – many will need a much less direct communication.”
Apart from riding on the capabilities of individual teachers, how can schools evolve institutional mechanisms to support children? Before we begin to talk about open communication between teachers and children, it would be useful to get the teachers, parents, counsellors, administrative staff, and support staff on the same page to affirm their commitment to creating a safer school environment for children. This may be difficult, as the Bangalore rape case indicates – where the child’s teacher is the accused.
Akhila Seshadri, a senior teacher with The School in Chennai, states, “I think CCTV cameras are a bad idea. Gosh! We must not make schools replicas of prisons and mental institutions. No! The key should be to build a culture of trust and caring always. Each school must evolve a safety policy with their staff. There must be a formal distance, particularly a physical one, between staff and students. No teacher must have a private conversation with children in a secluded spot. It can be private and yet within public view. No teacher must talk about sex, sexuality, safety issues on his or her own. Instead, there must be at least one other teacher who could provide feedback to him/her, if it is needed.”
She adds, “All this has been a result of several rounds of conversations in our staff meetings where we educated ourselves first about child sexual abuse, our own attitudes to sex and sexuality, our own deep seated fears and our blind spots: particularly notions of gender, religious dogma and so on, and then decided on school policy. It evolved together with all the teachers participating.”
Akhila advocates that safety education in a carefully planned manner should be made part of the timetable. Her school uses a booklet published by Tulir, a Chennai-based organization working on child sexual abuse, from grades one to five. From grade five to grade twelve, they have growing up classes focusing on sex, sexuality education and safety. The classes include a mix of activities, role plays, discussions and question-answer sessions.
“One activity could involve drawing themselves as they think they are,” she says, “And then drawing a sketch of themselves as they wish they were. Another is to look at advertisements and analyse them in terms of what reactions they create in them, the devices used, and to see if there are biases. This year, the grade 11 created a play on gender all culled from their experiences and questions.”
Akhila is one of the teachers who conduct these sessions with middle and senior school students at The School, Chennai. According to her, learning about ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ touch should begin with first graders. The understanding of ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ here includes thinking about pushing, hitting, trying out dangerous stunts, Truth or Dare games, and also touch which implies privacy and understanding what private parts are. This, she says, should continue into high school. However, the focus must change to learning to be assertive and safe at the same time.
She says, “The conversation must never become fear-inducing, rather it must make children feel that they can be in charge of their safety. The key things about these classes are that:
1. We invite children to ask the questions.
2. At least two teachers, as well as the class teacher, are present, and we look at sexuality, peer pressure, foul language, growing up and puberty, mutual respect, gender and stereotyping and media, and their responses to media.
And we have always responded immediately to what is happening outside. For example, many children were distressed over the Delhi rape that made to the front page of newspapers. Parents expressed helplessness in answering questions. In a way, we pre-empted and introduced the story in our classes and helped children understand their responses, their fears and feelings, and their difficulties.”
Is there any nationwide programme in India, working to empower children to protect themselves from sexual abuse? Prabha Nagaraja, Executive Director, TARSHI (Talking About Reproductive and Sexual Health Issues), shares, “We are in the process of writing a paper on sexuality education in India. We are hoping to get a sense of what is going on in different kinds of schools with respect to sexuality education. There is work in the area of sexuality education that is going on in schools though it is very difficult to actually get an overall picture.
As far as we know, some schools are actively engaged in conducting the governmentAdolescence Education Programme (AEP), while others are not. Some schools are also using their own curricula, based on their internal needs and perspectives. There is a lack of clarity on what form sexuality education takes. In some schools, it comes under Life Skills Education, in others under AEP. We prefer to use the term Comprehensive Sexuality Education.”
Resources for Educators:
Publications by Tulir: Centre for the Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse
TARSHI’s publications on sexuality education for children, educators and parents
The Y P Foundation’s Know Your Body Know Your Rights programme
Rahi Foundation’s Adolescents for Sexual Abuse Prevention (ASAP) programme
Child Sexual Abuse Awareness Programme by Childline
Personal Safety Education Programme by Arpan