The Sunday Deep Dive

All on board to keep children safe

In the spotlight:  The COVID-19 pandemic which took children willy nilly into the online world has also had a profound impact on them in terms of exposure to online content.

In the spotlight: The COVID-19 pandemic which took children willy nilly into the online world has also had a profound impact on them in terms of exposure to online content.

In November, the parents of a Class XII student in Coimbatore found her dead at home. With the help of her suicide note and other evidence, the parents registered a complaint with the police alleging that she had been sexually assaulted multiple times by a teacher at the school where she was studying. Protests soon followed demanding the teacher’s arrest and the incident left the city shocked by what had allegedly happened on the campus of a well-known school.

This case had an unfortunate ending, but was only one among several such cases involving allegations of sexual harassment of and misconduct against children that had emerged last year, both on and off campuses.

Hardly a week later, a Class XII student in Karur was found dead at her home and in a suicide note she alleged that she had been sexually harassed and was scared of saying anything more about the persons involved. A third such incident followed in December when notes left behind by a 17-year-old girl who died by suicide at Mangadu at her home alleged that she was sexually harassed by a teacher and a relative.

Additionally, the pandemic which took children willy nilly into the online world has also had a profound impact on children in terms of exposure to online content. This has further added to the need for robust mechanisms encompassing various aspects of child protection at a time when children are among the most vulnerable.

State policy

To mark Children’s Day in November, the Tamil Nadu government unveiled the State Policy for Children 2021. The policy stated that the government would “endeavour to ensure that every child is protected from all forms of violence, abuse and exploitation, shall have access to quality healthcare & education, will be able to freely express his/her views on any issue concerning him/her and to ensure the principle of leave no one behind”.

 

While a policy which encompasses four priority areas — health, education, protection and participation — was welcomed as a step in the right direction, all eyes are now on how this will be taken forward by the government. Rome was not built in a day, nor will the safety of children be ensured with a mere policy; sustained and comprehensive interventions are required, activists say.

Sexual abuse and schools

Schools in particular are a point of focus, given the number of changes that the pandemic has brought about in the way education systems work. Despite the prolonged closure of campuses over the last two years, several institutions were rocked by allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment last year after students took to online platforms to air their grievances.

What followed was a flurry of activity — child rights bodies took up several complaints, the police encouraged survivors to come forward, and the Tamil Nadu School Education Department called for the constitution of Student Safeguarding Advisory Committees (SSACs) on all campuses, among other measures. However, with schools once again closing for primary and middle class students, there is a need for a continuous review and monitoring of what these institutions have implemented so far.

Given the vastness of sexual violence related to educational institutions, Vidya Reddy, co-founder of Tulir-Centre for Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse, said a special officer should be appointed to ensure adherence to the order issued by the School Education Department, which sets forth guidelines for the safety and protection of students from sexual violence and protocols for online classes.

“It is high time that we came up with a comprehensive and institutionalised way of preventing and addressing sexual violence against children, instead of being reactionary and fragmented. The focus is also largely on children, and adults are missing from the narrative about prevention. We need to reorient adults to be able to identify behaviours in other adults which are worrying and seem like violation of boundaries, and call them out,” she adds. Aspects related to child-on-child abuse, excluding teenage romances which is an indication of healthy development, remains unacknowledged too, Ms. Vidya said.

The child policy has, however, made no mention of the POCSO Act and has instead called for the formation of an internal complaints committee under the POSH Act at all schools, which activists have questioned. For long, the need for schools to compulsorily have a child protection policy in place has been put forth. The Tamil Nadu Child Rights Watch, a collective working for child protection, has further recommended that child protection policies be extended not just to schools but any place that children have access to — crèches, sports classes and tuition centres — as well as programmes run by NGOs.

Digital divide

Reducing dropouts, encouraging inclusivity for students with disabilities through infrastructure and other interventions, fostering safe spaces, ensuring access to digital tools and quality education for all children, especially during situations like a pandemic, are some of the issues that the State policy addresses. Following the second wave of the pandemic, the School Education Department identified nearly 5 lakh students as potential dropouts, and was trying to trace over 1 lakh students who were yet to return to schools. “Issues like students dropping out of schools which have been exacerbated by the pandemic is especially why any policy should take a bottom-up approach. Most policies now look at the top of the pyramid; we need to come to the base and look at the quality of education and the socio-economic gaps which, in turn, lead to an increase in the incidence of child labour and criminal behaviour,” said Girija Kumarababu, child rights consultant and former secretary, Indian Council for Child Welfare (ICCW).

She emphasised the need to focus on the quality of education, improve the access for students above Class VIII to ensure that they stay on at schools and address the widening digital divide owing to the pandemic.

The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) Survey, 2021, indicated that access to smartphones for online classes was still a prevalent issue in Tamil Nadu. Only 26.8% of children said they had access to a device at all times.

Make their voices heard

Among the key aspects of the policy is the move to include children themselves in the democratic process through the creation of Bala Sabhas, which is similar to those in Kerala. “The State plan of action needs to go into details of their participation and encourage children to regularly share their grievances at gram sabha meetings. From transport facilities to lack of infrastructure and child safety, there are several issues that can be put forth by them,” said R. Vidyasagar, child rights activist. Stating that the policy was extremely important at a time like now when children were reeling under the impact of the pandemic, he said the participation of urban children in democratic processes had to be included in the plan, something that the policy had ignored.

The Department of Social Welfare and Women Empowerment has taken steps to prepare a State plan based on the policy. Two rounds of consultations have been held by the Directorate of Social Defence, which comes under the Department; the feedback received from the stakeholders will be considered when proposals are prepared to take the policy forward, said Principal Secretary Shambu Kallolikar.

Keeping with the policy’s specifications of strengthening inter-departmental convergence, Mr. Kallolikar said the recently launched Tamil Nadu State Child Protection Academy was aimed at doing this. “Capacity-building workshops for various Departments, including the State Judicial Academy, district child protection officers and members of the Child Welfare Committee, have already been held, and we will constantly work with the aim to bring integration among inter-departmental activities with a focus on child protection,” he explained.

As proposals get ready and an action plan is put forth, child rights activists have stressed the need to revisit child protection schemes and committees already in place and carry out a comprehensive review covering awareness and its impact.

“Forming a committee alone to put any policy into action will not work. Most social policies tend to ignore the needs of the local constituencies or understand issues with regard to last-mile populations before a plan is framed. Effectively mapping this and matching it with programmes in the plan at every step is what will take the policy to children,” said Mr. Vidyasagar.

( Those in distress or having suicidal tendencies could seek help and counselling by calling the State’s helpline 104 or Chennai-based Sneha’s suicide prevention helpline 044-2460050 )


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Printable version | May 14, 2022 2:36:53 am | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/all-on-board-to-keep-children-safe/article38276126.ece