What comes to your mind when you hear the term “school”? You think of a space where children go to learn and develop their skills. A place where children learn to grow intellectually and emotionally, make friends, create beautiful memories, and feel safe. We do not think of it as a place where children might undergo horrifying experiences that can leave a life-long psychological scar on them.
Incidents of mental and physical abuse of children at the hands of their teachers and schoolmates occur all the time at educational institutions globally. Child abuse has become a global concern as it has damaging consequences for both the children and society. The violence subjects the children to unimaginable pain and humiliation, which affects their learning process and negatively impacts their personalities and prospects.
According to the Center for Global Development, a total of approximately 400,000 girls across 10 countries were reported to have experienced sexual abuse in schools in the year between March 2019 and March 2020. Often teachers are the perpetrators of sexual harassment. For example, according to PISA for Development, one in eight boys and girls in Senegal and Zambia have been reported to be harassed by a teacher or staff member within a month.
The Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) programme conducted a survey among numerous countries where they asked women whether they had been sexually abused by a teacher when they were in school. The survey found that over 10 million women in India, 6 million in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and 3 million in Nigeria were sexually abused when they were in school.
The worst part of the situation is that most of the time, teachers are not held accountable for sexual harassment and abuse of children. Moreover, the Center for Global Development has also found that many countries do not even have a code of conduct for teachers that would typically ban sexual abuse or harassment of students. As a result, children lose their trust in adults and law enforcement, and it can permanently impact them. It also forces them to drop out of school, affecting their education and leading to a segment of the generation to remain uneducated and unable to contribute to the development of the economy.
In recent times, Bangladesh has also witnessed a rise in the number of child abuse cases. According to research by Bangladesh Shishu Adhikar Forum (BSAF), 571 children were raped or gang-raped, and 87 kids were sexually harassed in 2018. In 2019, 164 children were raped or gang-raped, whereas 27 kids were sexually harassed between January and March last year. However, according to Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), the actual number of children abused every year is much higher. As a matter of fact, many incidents are not reported to the local authorities or any authorities at all.
The abuse is taking place on both genders but more on girls than boys. However, according to a United Nations study in 2013, definitions of violence, harassment, and abuse are not consistent globally. This further deepens the problem.
Violence against children is preventable and must not be tolerated. Children have the right to be in a safe school environment where they will be able to learn to the best of their ability. Every child has the right to go to school without fearing their teachers or schoolmates. To address this, an organisation named Darkness to Light provides a training called “Stewards of Children” to address sexual abuse of children. Stewards of Children uses real people and real stories to represent how children can be protected. The training provides in-depth information and skills development on various topics. The training is designed to help people recognise and report child abuse. It also teaches ways in which bystanders can protect children from sexual abuse, what constitutes healthy and inappropriate touch for children, how to talk to children about protecting themselves from sexual abuse, etc.
A framework consisting of five steps has been created to protect children and prevent child sexual abuse. The first is to learn the facts. If we do not understand child abuse, then we cannot end it. Secondly, we have to create a safe environment to reduce abuse risks. Over 80 percent of sexual abuse cases occur in isolated, one-on-one situations. Thirdly, we must openly talk about the issue. Talking freely breaks down barriers and reduces the stigma associated with sexual abuse. By talking openly about our bodies, sex, and boundaries, we can encourage children to share. Fourthly, we need to recognise the signs of child abuse. Signs of abuse are not always obvious. Emotional and behavioural changes can be noticed. Lastly, it is our responsibility to react appropriately to suspicion, disclosure, or discovery of abuse. Only 4 to 5 percent of all sexual abuse reports are false; the rest are real.
Very few schools in Bangladesh have proper child protection policies and training in place to safeguard the students. Only a handful have strict child protection policies and training requirements. Schools should conduct child protection training every year. All the faculty, admin and support staff, including the gardeners, canteen staff, guards, and technicians, should participate in it.
If all schools take such initiatives, it can prevent child abuse in educational institutions significantly. The violence is preventable and proper initiatives and knowledge can tackle the issue and provide a safe environment for the children and the youth to learn and grow. Child abuse can happen anywhere, and as adults, we must do everything we can to prevent it.