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Majority of Indian schools don’t have means to prevent, combat child sexual abuse, survey finds

As part of OutLawed India’s initiative, we tracked the sexual abuse frameworks in schools across 200 Indian cities to measure the gap between the law and reality.

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The image of a school should be accompanied by the feeling of safety and security for students. However, this notion has been dispelled by the rising number of sexual abuse allegations by students. May 2021 saw over 200 sexual abuse complaints from students against their teachers in Chennai alone. While the sheer volume of cases made the headlines, sexual abuse in schools is not a new phenomenon. The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, or POCSO, is the most comprehensive legislation on child sexual abuse and it mandates reporting by any person to the police if child sexual abuse is suspected. This has implications on schools as well, to report such complaints to the police.

As part of the OutLawed India’s initiative – Project Safe Schools – we tracked the sexual abuse frameworks in schools to measure the gap between the law and reality. We launched an online survey and collected students’ responses from 1,635 schools across 200 cities in India. Our questions covered information on anti-sexual abuse workshops, POCSO awareness, teacher training programmes, and formal procedures to deal with sexual offences in schools through the setting up of committees (‘Sexual Harassment Committees’). The survey revealed that most schools in our sample are poorly equipped to deal with child sexual abuse.

Our data shows us that 36% of schools have definitely told students about the POCSO Act and 33.9% of schools have conducted workshops on sexual abuse. Moreover, 13.4% of schools have a Sexual Harassment Committee and 17.4% of schools have yearly teacher training programmes.

We have also analysed the data in detail for which we got the most responses – Karnataka (243), Uttar Pradesh (231), and National Capital Region or NCR (177). All three have similar figures in the sense that the most number of positive responses were for the questions on schools educating students about POCSO (Karnataka – 28%, UP – 37%, NCR – 44%), and conducting workshops on sexual abuse for the students (25%, 36%, 41%). The figures are much smaller for schools that have conducted anti-sexual harassment training workshops for teachers (10%, 16%, 18%) and which have Sexual Harassment Committees (8%, 14%, 18%).

Another point of analysis was examining the responses that had the same answer to all four questions. In other words, we looked at what percentage of schools had none of the resources that we enquired about, and what percentage had all of them.

 

Out of 1,635 schools, only 70 schools had all the resources that we enquired about – Sexual Harassment Committee, workshops for students and teachers, and POCSO awareness. On the other hand, 307 schools (18%) had absolutely no resources to prevent and combat sexual abuse, which is deeply concerning.


Also read: ‘Absurd interpretation’ — experts say HC’s POCSO order in groping case wrong on many levels


‘I Don’t Know’ matters 

The average number of “I Don’t Know” responses across the first four questions is a staggering 26%. It is an alarming revelation of the fact that students are unsure of the kinds of resources available to them.

We believe that the “I Don’t Knows” tell a much bigger story. For instance, 28.5% of students responded that they do not know if their school has a Sexual Harassment Committee. So, it is possible that some of these schools may indeed have a committee, but the students are unaware of it.

Similarly, 19% of the students are unaware whether they have been through any workshop about sexual assault. This shows that schools have been ineffective in getting the message across, perhaps due to infrequent workshops, lack of trained experts, or disinterested students.

The “I Don’t Know” response tells us about the potential consequences of lack of student awareness. 44% of the students told us that they are unaware of whether their school conducts yearly training programmes for teachers, and 38% of them told us the school does not have yearly programmes. This is relevant because students are less likely to approach a teacher about an issue relating to sexual abuse if they feel they will receive an adverse reaction. This concern is not misplaced — there have been many instances of schools’ unwillingness to provide victims with adequate support. A student who took part in this study said, “If an incident did occur, I don’t think anyone would know about it, because the students aren’t comfortable with the teachers.” Another student told us, “I feel like teachers in my school think that reporting sexual assault is attention-seeking behaviour.”

Based on the responses to the first four questions, one would assume that a majority of the students would have answered that they do not think that their school is equipped to deal with sexual offences. This, however, is not the case. As the above graph shows, student opinion on the ability of their school to deal with sexual abuse based on available resources is almost evenly split across “Yes”, “No”, and “I Don’t Know”.

The average number of “No” responses across the first four questions is 48%. Despite this, only 33.7% of the students responded “No” when we asked them if their school was equipped to deal with sexual abuse.

On the one hand, a certain section of students seem to be overly optimistic about their school’s ability to address the issue. This means that regardless of the lack of resources in their school, there is a sense of faith among students in their school’s ability to protect them. This type of faith, however, may not be warranted.

On the other hand, 34.2% of the students are still unsure about the capability of their school when it comes to sexual abuse. So, while students knew what the required resources to tackle this issue are, they were still unable to ascertain whether their schools could provide these resources. These data points lead us to an interesting conclusion: Students may not be aware of the nexus between the availability of resources and the ability of schools to combat sexual abuse.

The data from Project Safe Schools reveals that a majority of schools do not have the resources to prevent and combat sexual abuse. Moving forward, we need guidelines for schools to ensure that they have a concrete mechanism in place – both as a preventive measure, and one that supports victims of sexual abuse.

Vibha Nadig is the Founder of OutLawed India and Jwalika Balaji heads the content team at OutLawed India. Views are personal. 

(Edited by Prashant)

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