Tokenism and repackaging old provisions: Centre’s response to rise in child abuse

Amid rising child abuse, Centre wants new guidelines on safety, activists say it's lip service
Women and child development minister Maneka Gandhi and human resource development minister Prakash Javadekar | Source: Wikimedia commons

Union ministers Maneka Gandhi and Prakash Javadekar ask NCPCR to formulate guidelines on child abuse; activists say it’s pointless because they already exist.

In the face of rising instances of violence and abuse against children in schools, the central government Monday asked the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) to formulate a set of security and safety audit guidelines.

However, according to child rights activists, this seems to be nothing more than lip service, since the guidelines are already in place.

The government asked for the new guidelines after a high-level meeting co-chaired by women and child development (WCD) minister Maneka Gandhi and human resource development (HRD) minister Prakash Javadekar. However, the meeting merely culminated in a bunch of reiterations, and some announcements.

The WCD ministry also announced, in a series of tweets, that an inter-ministerial committee of six secretaries from the WCD, HRD, social justice, tribal and minority affairs, and drinking water and sanitation ministries, would also be constituted to monitor ‘Mission School Safety’.

Other measures announced by the WCD ministry include popularising advertisements for POCSO e-boxes and ‘Childline 1098’ on school textbooks, broadening the scope of school management committees to private schools, instituting POCSO helplines in schools, and showing ‘Komal’, a film by the Government of India about “good touch, bad touch”.

Why not simply review existing guidelines?

According to Enakshi Ganguly Thukral, co-founder of Haq Centre for Child Rights, it is not in the mandate of the NCPCR to set up guidelines for the government. The body is, in fact, meant to monitor the activities of the government.

Further, a set of guidelines by the NCPCR for corporal punishment in schools already delineates a set of measures for protecting children and their rights in schools.

“Each time something happens, the government comes up with a new set of guidelines with more or less similar provisions,” Thukral said.

An exhaustive set of guidelines by the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights more specifically focuses on addressing child abuse within schools. From child protection safeguards to therapeutic intervention and monitoring, the guidelines offer a holistic mechanism to deal with child abuse in educational institutions.

“What was stopping the government from simply reviewing the existing guidelines, and broadening their scope of implementation?” Thukral said.

Regarding the inter-ministerial panel announced by the WCD ministry, Thukral said it was “designed to fail”, because it was practically impossible for a secretary-level committee to monitor the implementation of these measures across schools all over the country.

Thukral said while it was encouraging to see the government take cognisance of child abuse, a lot of times a few gory incidents of violence – which caught the media’s eye – wrongly become the yardstick to judge governmental action.

Anant Asthana, a child rights lawyer practising in the Delhi High Court, shared some of Thukral’s pessimism.

“I think government’s concerns are genuine, but it seems to be lost on what should be done,” he said.

“Issuing guidelines is the quickest way to calm the public down,” he added.

Yet, he argued that it is encouraging to see that the government has come up with an inter-ministerial committee because it recognises the fact that children’s safety does not fall in the domain of any single ministry.

“But what is crucial is that this committee should actually meet, issue orders, implement rule,” he said arguing that these committees are often instituted, but they seldom meet.

The government has also asked for female staff to be stationed on school buses – a symbolic measure it often takes in the wake of incidents of sexual abuse. It added that the staff would be trained through the Nirbhaya Fund.

“The belief that deploying women is a short-cut to stopping sexual abuse is inherently faulty. In an environment where there is widespread normalisation of violence, these measures may be sheer tokenism,” Thukral said.

Asthana, however, thought it is a “positive sign” if the government has specified the source of funding for at least some of its provisions.

“Often what happens is that guidelines are issued, but no fund allocation is made for their implementation,” he rues.

A teacher from New Delhi’s Sardar Patel Vidyalaya, who did not wish to be named, posed another pertinent question: “What does the government intend to do in cases of non-performance or non-adherence to the measures by schools, since none of the measures are legally enforceable in nature?”

“A number of guidelines and measures are already in place, but does the government bother to conduct audits? Moreover, is the government equipped to carry out these audits across the length and breadth of the country in schools running without teachers?” the teacher said.

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