Child safety first – young voices from the most marginalized speak out
Bengaluru/ New Delhi: 19 July 2019 2:34 pm
Amnesty International India’s ‘Our Safety and Our Rights’ campaign revealed that major safety and sexual harassment concerns for children studying in government, Panchayat union and Adi-Dravida Welfare schools in Tamil Nadu is leading to students dropping out of school.
Through the campaign, children from the most marginalized communities tell the policymakers what they want through a new charter of demands. These are voices and opinions that have never been heard before with most participants from Adi-Dravida Welfare Schools and other mostly remote government schools. In collaboration with the Institute of Social Education, an NGO based in Chennai, Amnesty International India engaged with 739 children from 21 schools across eight districts of Tamil Nadu. Majority of participants were of the age group 12-14 years with over 70% belonging to Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities and the rest to either backward or most backward communities.
“The Charter of Demands drawn up by children clearly reflects the rights guaranteed under the RTE Act. Yet, as these demands show, none of these rights have been realised and none of the laws duly implemented. Children participating in the campaign were asked a simple question – ‘What would you like your government to do to ensure your safety?’ Our aim was to create awareness about child safety and sexual abuse, and empower children to speak up about the issue while keeping the children’s agency at the heart of the campaign.
The responses brought to fore a mix of issues related to safe access to schools, safe infrastructure, lack of counselling and support services or complaint and redressal mechanisms in and around these schools. Due to these unfavourable conditions, parents prefer to discontinue the education of their children, particularly girls rather than putting their lives at risk,” said Rajakumari, Manager, Human Rights Education, Amnesty International India.
A common problem echoed by the children was the lack of proper toilets, compound walls and security guards around their schools. “We study in a residential school. Our hostel doesn’t have a compound wall and the toilet is located outside the building. In the middle of the night, we hear men making sounds and throwing stones at the building. We are scared to use the toilets at night,” Prabha*, a participant, told Amnesty International India. Many children highlighted poor infrastructure and unhealthy learning environment within their schools as factors contributing to their unsafety. Nearly all the girls and a few boys spoke about sexual harassment being part of their day-to-day lives.
In addition to their schools, children also sought an equally safe environment in their homes and villages with nearly 90% of respondents highlighting problems of safe access to schools. Poorly-constructed and unsafe roads to schools, inadequate street lighting and unchecked negligent and drunk driving on highways aggravate the vulnerabilities of children. Long distances between home and school accompanied by lack of adequate public or school transport and the presence of alcohol-vending Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (TASMAC) shops on the way further exacerbate the susceptibility of children to harm. “There is a TASMAC 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 from (home) to accompany me” Kalpana*, a participant, told Amnesty International India.
“The safety concerns which emerged through this exercise reflect the many challenges faced by children belonging to marginalised communities and remote villages. The children’s demands are legitimate – not only under the law, but also mandated by the Integrated Child Protection Scheme and the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights’ Manual on the Safety and Security of Children in Schools. However, there appears to be no political will to effectively implement these schemes and plans,” said Shyam Sundar, Director, Institute of Social Education.
Through the charter the children also demand formation of child protection committees and running awareness campaigns at a village level, and seek compulsory safety and self-defence education, proper infrastructure and efficient reporting mechanisms for complaints of child sexual abuse at the school level.
“Although laws and policies have been put in place to protect the rights of children, they tend to favour treating the symptom, rather than finding a cure. While there is great emphasis on the ‘punishment’ of crimes against children, methods of prevention and the promotion of child safety are not only inadequate, but also remain largely on paper. The children are really asking for the very basics to be in place. A holistic approach is essential for addressing the safety and security of children,” said Rajakumari.
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