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OPINION | Honey, Don't Shrink the Kids While Addressing India's Child Abuse Pandemic

When talking of solutions, the knee-jerk reactions range from CCTVs, only same gender attendants and teachers, sex education and more and more institutional surveillance. But let’s look beyond that for a minute here.

Bedatri D Choudhury |

Updated:December 8, 2017, 2:52 PM IST
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OPINION | Honey, Don't Shrink the Kids While Addressing India's Child Abuse Pandemic
Parents of students hold placards during their mass gathering outside the premises of a high-profile school in Kolkata (PTI Photo)
There is something rotten in the state of education in our country, especially in the way the schools are run. In the aftermath of the recent child sexual abuse cases in two schools in Kolkata, and within the context of the larger history of child sexual abuse in India, we of course need to re-examine the way we define and deal with such heinous occurrences but we also need to address the elephant in the room and try and pin down what in our schools and the way they are run, is constantly aiding this.

When talking of solutions, the knee-jerk reactions range from CCTVs, only same gender attendants and teachers, sex education and more and more institutional surveillance. But let’s look beyond that for a minute here. When we teach sex to four year olds, we sexualise them. Is that what we really want? Is a panoptic keeping track of everything children do, really an answer to this?

I went to a girls’ school for fifteen years and for all of those years, I have been subjected to different kinds of body and moral policing. Of course it’s a school’s duty to discipline and I understand the need for “tough love” when it comes to handling adolescents and making them study. It isn’t easy.

But what are we doing to girls if we keep telling them, for fifteen years and more, that the length of their skirts determine if they are a good girl or not, that if their skirts are too short, they are inviting trouble? We are doing, in small degrees, what rape apologists do; we are placing the blame on the victim, we are telling teenage girls that they “ask for it” when they wear skirts above their knees, we are teaching boys that girls who wear short skirts are “bad” girls and it’s ok to abuse them. Is it really too hard to believe that adults to think like this are the same adults to deny instances of child sexual abuse and place the onus on the child-victim to identify and punish the perpetrators?

Women I went to school with and women who went to other girls’ schools elsewhere in India and the city of Kolkata will all recount how these skirt length conversations would go a long way in determining who was a good girl and deserved to have friends or who was a bad girl who had to punished through social isolation. They would all grow up to find a word to retrospectively describe what they practised, witnessed and sometimes suffered — “slut shaming.” That wasn’t the end of it. We have all had fat classmates who we made fun of because they couldn’t run fast enough, or couldn’t ever imagine themselves on top of the human pyramid we made during the sports meets. I’d like to believe that if we were schooled on such insensitive behaviour instead of our skirt lengths, we’d be better women a little earlier on in life. It’d have been a better education if we hadn’t seen teachers treating “bad students” terribly, we would’ve never then had the audacity to refuse to sit with them. If the teachers had intervened at this juncture and told us that it makes us terrible human beings to look down upon a classmate who has had to repeat a term, we’d grow up to be better adults, I feel. We’d also prevent a lot of our classmates from becoming the emotionally fragile, ever-self doubting adults they grow up to become.

In our schools, somehow, defying all logic, good grades mean good girls. If you’re one of those who are struggling with that stray subject and are not doing well enough, you’ve pretty much had it — you’ll be isolated, shamed for being stupid, made sure you have no friends and then, even if you’re really talented at something else other than those essays and equations, you’ll have half a lifetime of seeing the class topper being sent to all the talent competitions instead of you. This is not a reality only my friends and I lived in our specific school but this is a story I have heard from every friend who has attended school in India. Everyone has had a time when they have wanted to do something they have thought they are really good at and been told, “Please concentrate on your studies instead,” thereby squashing all hopes of being actually good at something! And at that point, we lose all semblance of any self-esteem and no amount of “You have to work harder” being rammed down our throats at PTA meetings can make it better. We know that if the report cards are not straight As, we literally have no shot at life.

Many might say I digress and that child rape is a crime that should be addressed specifically in the aftermath of the current reports. So they will talk of castration, death sentences and CCTVs some more but can we, for once, agree that crimes don’t happen in isolation and begin to look at the “smaller” wrongs that keep happening and keep going unnoticed till something “big” and shameful like child rapes happen.

First, let’s learn to trust the victim, no matter what their age is. Let’s not say that kids are over imaginative these days, let’s not ask why they were wearing a short skirt and talking to a boy in that school fest and let’s please not make them believe that somehow they have the power to avert abuse by wearing longer sleeves, by tying their hair in plaits and by not hiking their skirts up. Let’s not teach them things on the lines of “if you’re doing it right, no one will touch you.”

We all know that isn’t true, that women get harassed and abused irrespective of their clothes, creed, education and mobility. At the ages of twelve and thirteen, we are swimming in our sea of hormones and trying to make sense of what our body really wants. It is crucial at that point, that teachers step in and not make us feel ashamed of what is already confusing us. It starts early, as early as schools decide to teach students that nothing matters more than grades — everything takes a backseat thereon and we just grow more and more unsure of everything we are and are becoming. Unsure girls become unsure women and unsure women always find it hard to battle an ever looming sense of self-doubt and the crippling fear of never being good enough to do anything properly. If that is what we are planting the seeds to when a child is barely four, what feminist ideals are we even aiming to achieve with our institutionalised girls’ school education?

Yes, we need redressal systems and counselling networks within schools but what we need with that is a compassion with which child protection policies are implemented, a sensitivity that respects the client-counsellor confidentiality because it is the same mindset at play that blames a thirteen year old for abuse, and jumps to defend a male PT teacher who rapes a four-year-old-child. What we need is the teachers and educators to step down from their high chairs and rethink what they do to women when they have the power to form everlasting impressions on their minds. There is a need to rethink power and there is a need to relearn the tenets of basic compassion that will allow students to trust them and come to them speaking of abuse and trauma, and will allow them to seek out help when they need help dealing with it. This doesn’t come when you say that rape is an act of mischief, this doesn’t happen when you ignore early signs of abuse and call it all a part of disciplining. We all like distancing ourselves from the “scene of crime” as it were; we all like slipping into nostalgia and claiming our school days were better, nicer and safer but let’s dig in a little deeper because we all know the danger of propagating a one-sided story.

(Author, a resident of New York, writes on films, food, gender and most other things. Views are personal)
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