Creating safe schools by Durdana Najam

Pakistan has yet to traverse path leading to safe learning environment for children

Of late, a prestigious private school had been in the spotlight because of reported cases of harassment. Though the teachers involved — four of them — had been committing the grotesque act for many years, it was only when a few girls mustered the courage to speak out on social media, did it come to the fore. Several questions have since been asked about the child protection policies of schools. The overriding concern, however, was: why had the girls to choose social media to talk about their problem? Why could not they reach out to their teachers or parents to register their complaints? Does it mean it is still a taboo for girls to raise their voice on sexual abuse?

These are not new questions, though. Sexual abuse of children is a pervasive issue, taken up many times, apparently solved through various policy decisions and enactment of laws. However, because of the lack of will to implement them the issue has refused to leave. Surprisingly enough, research has shown that not a single school in Pakistan has the policy to protect children against sexual harassment which means the schools would also not have bothered to formulate any mechanism in this regard.

The school-based staff spends considerable time with children, making them well placed to recognise when children are anxious and distressed and to see worrying changes in behaviour that may indicate if the child had been abused or bullied. However, given the complexity of recognising maltreatment, teachers must be trained in making an accurate assessment of a child’s mental health.

According to experts, schools should arrange workshops to teach both teachers and parents about child abuse. Regrettably, open discussion on these issues is often discouraged in Pakistan because of the stigma attached to the notion of being “sexually abused”. The backlash from parents and guardians is another factor that keeps children from reporting harassment they face at the hands of teachers or other staff members. Child psychologists urge parents and teachers to talk candidly about sexual abuse with children and build in them the confidence to expose the identity of the harassers without intimidation, in the nick of time. Once the case it taken up, guard should not be lowered until the suspect is exposed and punished.

In its 2019 annual report on nationwide child abuse cases, Sahil, an NGO working for the protection of children from violence, revealed that throughout the year, a total of 2,846 cases of child sexual abuse were reported in newspapers. “On average, eight children are abused in Pakistan every day,” the report stated. “Children belonging to the age group of six to 15 years are the most vulnerable, while more boys are victimised [as compared to] girls.” Out of 3,722 abusers, 2,222 were acquainted with the victims — including, relatives, cousins, neighbours, family friends, clerics, teachers, and even a parent.

According to the United Nations Children Fund, violence and harassment against children is a criminal offence manifested in various forms and shapes.

The legislative framework for child protection is provided for in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. It obligates every government to facilitate children’s right to learn in a safe and secure environment and to ensure that children are protected from all forms of violence, injuries, abuse, and neglect. There is no particular law in Pakistan that provides for safe learning in schools and institutions. However, Article 25 of the Constitution of Pakistan makes the government responsible to ensure special provisions for the protection of children. Prime Minister Imran Khan has also said that his government has zero tolerance for child abuse. Notwithstanding all these laws, provisions, and promises, there is a dire need to have a system of early identification, reporting, and management of child abuse.

For an effective mechanism, a school’s policy must be constructed upon the overarching mechanism drawn by the Ministry of Education. It should issue statutory and non-statutory guidance to local authorities, which would then produce their procedures for the practitioners and professionals to follow when they come into contact with the child. In addition to that, a system of inspection and monitoring should be developed to oversee the implementation of child protection policies in schools.

Violent or abusive behaviour of a teacher has detrimental consequences on the personality of the students. According to the findings of a study conducted on sexual abuse of school children, by teachers in senior secondary schools in Botswana, a child abused or harassed by the teacher experiences difficulty in developing cognitive competencies and skills. It also leaves the child with little or no respect for any relationship because of a lack of trust. Emotional incoherence, lack of focus, impaired learning skills and belligerence towards elders are other setbacks visiting on children maltreated by teachers in schools.

Pakistan has yet to traverse the path leading to a safe learning environment for children in schools and institutions. The above-cited case of harassment is from a private school, which are cited few and far between, the rate of violence against children committed in religious schools is though alarming. An investigation conducted by the Associated Press found a pervasive culture of sexual harassment and physical abuse in seminaries where many of the country’s poor children study.

Schools are expected to be the most secure places in a community and teachers the most trusted individuals for children. The real world however is not that simple. Therefore, it is important that we encourage our children to speak out whenever they encounter any abnormal thing or behaviour from strangers or their associates. This is the first step towards self-realisation and living consciously in a world of self-serving people.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 23rd, 2020.

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