Schools, NGOs fight the odds to keep India’s children safe

August 2, 2014

The red, blue and yellow walls of Gunjan Play School in Noida, a suburb east of India’s capital, are conspicuous in the afternoon sun. Many of the students have left, but the chatter of children fills the air and occasional peals of laughter still ring out from the classrooms.

Urvashi Chakravarty has just stepped out after spending several hours teaching and looking after as many as 40 children. Clad in a crisp purple sari, she is still on duty, waiting for parents to come and get their little ones before she can sign off for the day.

“There are some people who, when running late, tell us to let their kids wait outside with the guards. We don’t allow that. It upsets them but facing a bit of anger is a small price to pay for ensuring safety,” said Chakravarty, who has been running the school for eight years.

In a country with a steadily rising graph of child abuse, schools can never be too cautious. Last month’s assault on a 6-year-old girl at a private school in India’s IT capital of Bangalore in Karnataka became front-page news, triggering protests by parents and the youth wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

A citywide strike shut schools and public transport in Bangalore on Thursday, a day after media reports said another schoolgirl had been sexually assaulted. In July, a teacher in the adjoining state of Andhra Pradesh was caught on camera caning a blind child, while another video clip showed a private tutor hitting a toddler in Kolkata.

Suksham Aneja, whose son and daughter study at Delhi Public School in Noida, said she was satisfied with the safety arrangements for her children in school, but worries about their safety sometimes.

“My daughter returns late from her extra classes three days a week and is dropped off a little far from where we live. That little distance is enough to make me uncomfortable,” Aneja said.

A study by the Ministry of Women and Child Development in 2007 said children in the 5-12 age bracket are most at risk of abuse and exploitation. It estimated that two out of every three children in India are physically abused. More than half of the children surveyed in the 13 sample states faced one or more forms of sexual abuse. The report also said two of every three school-going children were victims of corporal punishment.

At Gunjan Play School, all male members of the staff such as drivers, guards or gardeners are on the school’s payroll and not hired on contract. Chakravarty said strict background checks are made before hiring staff.

“I know kids are at risk even from women, so I and other teachers are always on the round, keeping an eye on the movement of children and attendants,” she said.

Non-governmental organizations such as Childline India Foundation that run a 24-hour, toll-free emergency number for children in distress, get up to 5 million calls each year.

Privately funded, the organization visits schools in Mumbai, India’s financial capital, and runs what it says is India’s largest sensitization programme for children in junior school.

“The programme involves recruitment, training and certification of women volunteers, who then enact stories that convey the concepts of safe touch and personal safety rules during a normal school period”, said Nishit Kumar, ‎head of Communications and Strategic Initiatives at Childline India.

“We have reached half a million children across 400-450 schools in the city,” he said, adding that Childline India uses animation films to sensitize children on child sexual abuse.

Several private and government schools have joined hands with Childline for child safety programmes. One of them is Mumbai’s Greenlawns High School, which installed CCTVs on its premises and hired an authorised agency to provide security to around 1,500 students.

“We held interactions with the police and a gynaecologist. We also held competitions – drawing contests for little children and elocutions for those in higher standards – to find out whether they have understood the concepts or not,” said Jas Kaur, a teacher who joined the school ten years ago.

In a statement after the Bangalore assault, Amnesty International India said the case highlighted the need for policies to prevent violence against children in schools.Experts say more needs to be done to ensure the safety of schoolchildren in India.

“Authorities have not developed clear guidelines for schools on identification of abuse, reporting, referral, investigation, treatment and follow up, and appropriate judicial involvement,” said Tara Rao, director of human rights education at Amnesty India.

A set of minimum safety standards needs to be established in all public spaces and institutions, said Kumar of Childline India.

“For example, the absence of separate toilets for children and adults in many schools puts children at risk. You’re just inviting danger when you do that,” he said.

(Editing by Tony Tharakan and David Lalmalsawma; Follow Anupriya on Twitter @anupriyakumar, Tony @TonyTharakan and David @davidlms25 | This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission)

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