“We are first-generation learners. We have to walk through the forest and other villages every day and we do not find it safe.”
“There are no toilets in our school, forcing us to relieve ourselves outside. Not only are we teased by boys from our school, but outsiders as well.”
“There is a liquor shop on our way to school. People drink alcohol and harass us. Our parents are so worried about our safety that they want us to discontinue our education. I can’t go to school if there is no one to accompany me.”
These are the voices of children. These voices resonate the fear that many children go through in day-to-day life. Experiences of sexual harassment and the fear of being abused haunt them. In the last two years, as part of our campaign Our Safety, Our Rights we have interacted with thousands of children across India. While it is difficult for children to open up initially, when safe space is created, children have a lot to share about their day to day experiences of harassment and their fear about being abused. In our experience, most of the girls and a few boys spoke about sexual harassment being part of their day-to-day lives. This limited interaction with children not only helped us to understand children but reminded us about the urgent need to focus on prevention and promotion of child safety keeping them as the agency in the process.
It is very clear from their experience, very little has been done to prevent and promote child safety, in spite of an increase in reporting child sexual abuse. While there is a great emphasis on the ‘punishment’ of crimes against children, methods of prevention and promotion of child safety are inadequate. Children’s experiences remind the need for a holistic approach that involves all aspects of a child’s life – parents, teachers, caretakers and institutions – in addressing the safety and security of children. Most importantly, they remind us the need to keep children as an agency in the process, and their voices, thoughts and opinions a guiding light throughout.
Children didn’t just share their experiences, but based on what they go through in their day to day life, they have clearly articulated what we adults and the government should do to ensure their safety. Here below are some lessons that we have drawn upon from our interaction with children.
- Safe Space for Children to speak up: There is no safe space for children to share, discuss or consult what they go through. Due to fear, stigma, punishment and fear of being bullied and blamed, they are afraid to speak up. Every school must create that safe space and build a conducive atmosphere for children to speak up. This safe space should keep in mind the concerns of children with disabilities.
- Trust in Children: When we asked children with whom they would share experiences of harassment, nearly 90% of children preferred to “share with friends”. They don’t feel comfortable to discuss with Parents or Teachers. “They don’t trust us. They will only blame us. “This is what many children have said. It is important the parents, teachers and other stakeholders trust children and initiate a dialogue with children about their safety with them both at school and home.
- Safety Education in School Curriculum: In schools, after teachers conducted sessions about children’s safety, some children mustered the courage to report incidents of child sexual abuse. Conducting such sessions also helped teachers understand children better and support them. On the other hand, safety education builds confidence and courage in children. For example, as I was interacting in a school in Tumkur, a child stood up and said, “I have learnt what I need to do to protect myself. I have gained the courage to speak up. I will share all that you spoke to me today with my friends.” Safety education should be integrated in the school curriculum and teachers should be trained to impart it with sensitivity and care.
- Creating a Safe Environment: In our interactions with children, they clearly articulate and identify unsafe locations. Many children highlighted poor infrastructure and unhealthy learning environments within their schools and unsafe travel routes to schools as factors contributing to their unsafety. “I am scared of going home after school. Men are everywhere and they stop us sometimes and pass comments at times. We get scared.” Says a child. Children also reported about school campuses being used for illegal activities after school hours and the presence of liquor shops either in the village or on their way to schools pose threat to children’s safety. A conscious effort should be made by respective school management and village panchayats to create safer environments. This should be done through constant dialogue with the children.
- Public Awareness: Children have placed several demands- the main demand was to educate those who harass children. “This session is helpful and gives us the courage to speak up. At the same time, I feel that such education should be provided to people who abuse us. They should know what they are doing is wrong” said a child in a school in Tumkur. Many other children too have expressed these views. It is important a mass awareness is given to parents, communities and to the public.
- Effective Implementation of Child Protection policies and Laws: “Whatever the government does to protect a Chief Minister, the same the government should do to protect children” said a child during an interaction. Many children echoed the need to keep child safety a priority and the demand for effective implementation of child protection policies and laws.
- Education as an empowerment tool: The children are keenly aware that education is important for ensuring their own safety, protection and well-being. They feel that education is a pathway to progress in life – one that will make them economically independent and enable them to not protect themselves from being trapped into the social ills of child marriage, child labour and other unsafe situations in society, but also prepare them to handle life’s vicissitudes better. They are afraid that the experiences of sexual harassment will put end to their education. “Boys tease girls. Even in our villages, girls are harassed. That is why parents do not send girls to school. That is why a lot of girls work inside homes.
The concerns expressed by children are real and it needs our attention as Parents, Teachers, and Community. At present, the emergency measures imposed to curb COVID-19 is likely to worsen the situation. The continuous shut down of schools and the growing loss of livelihood and economic impact may further push children into exploitation and abuse. Let’s do our part to provide a safe environment for all children and demand the Government to keep child protection and welfare at the core agenda.
About the Author:
Manager – Human Rights Education,
Amnesty International India.
Connect with Raji @ email ID
She has over 17 years of experience in the field of human rights and human rights education. She has worked extensively with children with Child Rights and You(CRY) and has also worked with the Human Rights Education team at Amnesty International India. Over the last two years, she has worked with over 2000 children and teachers on the issue of child abuse.
This DEAF AWARENESS WEEK, VAANI is launching an online sensitization campaign to increase public awareness on this topic of ‘Child Sexual Abuse Dangers To Hearing Impaired Children’, from. September 23rd, 2020.
If you are a parent, child, non-profit organization working in the field, corporate organization or community worker and would like to get involved, please write to VAANI @ < email@example.com>