By Maya Palit
Here are two stories which tell you a little bit about how authority figures who are responsible for the emotional well-being of children tend to botch up when it comes to sexual assault.
A Kolkata-based friend was harassed by her mother’s partner as an 11-year-old. When she attempted to speak to her mother about it, she was shut down. First, her mother insisted that her story was fictitious and sent her for counselling to the school psychiatrist. The shrink asked her why she lied so much.
The second is about a 10-year-old girl who was assaulted in a Bangalore school by a maintenance worker. When her family tried to speak to the school about it, the general response went from disbelief and denial to saying malignant things about the girl being sexually active, suggesting that she was disturbed because she didn’t have a father, and implying that she was promiscuous and getting it on with male relatives at home. The school also hired a lawyer to protect the accused.
Both these situations will remind many of us, actually most of us, of adults who have had the worst response to our complaints of being felt up (or worse) as children. We may grow up to forgive or forget our families for their terrible, muddled, criminal responses. Should we forgive schools though?
Schools in India often cope with sexual assault on minors in the worst way possible. They do this either by being complicit in the parents’ attempts to cover up the case (deliberately withholding information about sexual assault on a minor is a criminal offence under POCSO) or denying it vociferously in their attempts to save face. I don’t know why I just said ‘schools in India’. Here is what an expensive private school in New York did when they faced a lawsuit for not adequately protecting a teenaged girl who was assaulted by her senior. The school threatened the parents that if they didn’t fall in line the school would reveal the victim’s name in court documents. (In this case, the schoolgirl decided to out herself, start a campaign against sexual assault and shame her school instead.)
Why do schools and education officials avert their eyes when there is a crisis involving assault on a minor? Part of it could be the impulse to avoid addressing sex and assault at all, and to avoid acknowledging that these issues could be relevant for minors.
Just this week, for instance, school girls in Gothera Tappa Dahena village in Rewari, Haryana, have been on hunger strike because of the harassment they face on their way to school. They’re often stopped by men, harassed, and asked to share their numbers. Last year, after a student was raped on her way to school, girls from villages nearby stopped going to school. District education officials have only responded by saying the girls are being ‘misled’.
What about when denial isn’t an option? Then you get rid of the problem, of course, like in the case of a 12-year-old girl in Kolkata which resurfaced in the papers this week.
She apparently became the youngest mother in the state after becoming pregnant as a result of rape, and gave birth to a daughter in March.
The school’s appalling response to this incident was to give the girl a transfer certificate. According to her, she was humiliated and accused of harming the school’s reputation. Particularly infuriating is that the headmistress seemed to shy away from the blame, saying that guardians were anxious that she would discuss her rape with other students. Most bizarrely, and in keeping with a long tradition of paranoid responses to women and assault, the headmistress said that male teachers were also anxious that the girl would accuse them of assault.
The Women’s Commission, the West Bengal Commission for Protection of Child Rights, and the District Legal Services Authority of Howrah have between them attempted to file a cause notice against the school and issued a notice to the headmistress. But as with the long legal back-and-forth in POCSO cases, the emotional impact on the child becomes buried. When you think of what else is on this girl’s plate — what with attempting to fight for action in a Howrah court after the local police apparently didn’t do much because the person who raped her has political connections — it’s hard to not feel both startled and infuriated at the distinct lack of any empathy from the school.
When a dramatic incident like the Bangalore play school molestation case comes to light, where a supervisor sexually assaulted several young students and touched their genitals and body parts, the de-facto response is one of obvious outrage. (Apparently the principal in this case too, initially defended the staff member who assaulted the students.)
But questions like “Are our children safe?” aren’t necessarily helpful either because the answers tend to revolve around infrastructure efforts that can be made to increase vigilance. More security cameras being installed, as we saw in the molestation case, would have been completely ineffectual because the molester was the person who controlled the CCTV footage too. In this incident, and other cases of sexual assault on very young children, one of the more regular features is that the child first complains of stomach pain or that they have been touched by someone. If at that stage they are shut down by parents, or made to believe they are fabricating it all by school staff because they aren’t comfortable having dialogues about sexual issues with minors, it can lead to years of trauma.
Perhaps altering the ways in which schools respond to such instances has to start with switching around their priorities, from viewing assault as an assault on the school’s reputation than a situation where a child’s well-being needs protection.
Allowing a 12-year-old rape victim and a new mother to attend school and speak openly about what has taken place in her life, if she wants to, is actually the least that the Kolkata school can do. And thinking about what we can do when (it’s not an if) children are sexually assaulted is the least the rest of us can do.
Co-published with Firstpost.