When an unfortunate incident happens with children, it fills our heart and soul with immense grief and anger. In India, every fifth minute there is an occurrence of crime against children, however what shakes us the most in the Ryan International case is the fact that crime took place within the four walls of the school which is considered to be safe place for a child. There are numerous cases which time and again proven that protection of children at school level is clearly compromised. This recent untowardly incident has escalated the much needed aspect of child protection at school level. It is certain that at present school going children and children who access any such institution such as an Anganwadi, private play school, crèche, day care center or other institutions are not completely protected.
Child protection isn’t a simple process which can be fixed with ensuring some minimum required protocol in place. It is about range of things starting from empowering children themselves to establishing clear accountabilities. It is about prevention, timely response/action and in cases of violation a decisive action by duty bearers involving punitive action followed by speedy closure of case.
A child resides in an ‘adult dominated world’, and sadly our notion of safety is not ‘child-centric’. We conveniently assume that children are at risk with a stranger or a school bus driver and not at risk with a relative. We are extremely worried when a child is exposed to risk if s/he crosses a heavy traffic road and we don’t find it threatening when s/he sits for 6 hours in a dilapidated school / Angwandi building. We often say ‘world outside it very bad’, but often do not invest in making children learn about personal safety which could arise from known people or complete strangers. In India, the perception and palpability of risk for children is very low. The overall understanding that children’s protection encompasses a lot of obvious as well as obscure aspects is something which is not understood and acted upon by duty bearers and caregivers of children.
When we look at children’s protection in the realm of school safety we somewhere narrow the holistic protection. We are today in a society where a lot of times violation of children’s right within school is not even seen as anything wrong. On a daily basis children faces various forms of corporal punishment, they are shamed, beaten, discriminated, mistreated and in most of the cases it is considered ‘normal’ or the way to ‘discipline’ children. The powerful adult doesn’t even comprehend the damage done intentionally or un-intentionally to the child’s psyche. The protection canvas for children is much wider and entails everything which makes the child access to school and stay in school safe. On the one end it is about making sure that road to school and transport to school is safe and on the other hand it is also about operationalising the laid out protocols and guidelines and making child protection an intrinsic part of educational institute’s ethos and institutional laid out principles. It is about working on preventive aspects with building greater awareness and equipping adults to address issues of child protection and appropriately respond. It is investing in building the agency in children and empowering them to act, react and seek help whenever their safety is compromised. And importantly have conversations with children and making options available for children could confide and talk.
There is a dire need for us as a society to invest and considerably bring about a systemic change every aspect which touches a child’s world. For the population of 444 million children under the age of 18 years, we have allocated only 1062 crores for Child Protection in 2017-18 Union Budget out of which highest share going to Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS) of 648 crores. There is almost negligible budget parked for awareness building and preventive aspects. Investment in laying down various preventive mechanisms is extremely crucial and for which increased investment in human resource, training as well as technology is imperative. The discourse cannot just curtail itself to having better facilities in school bus, replacing all staff with female staff in the school. We know that a large number of children in India walk to school, accesses over crowded private transport and public buses and forget closed circuit television camera, the sheer availability of electricity is absent.
The need of the hour is strong political will and clearly laid out accountabilities for duty bearers in order to protect our young citizens and mass awareness and sensitization to build a society where every adult does everything it takes in their will, and capacity to make sure all children are always safe.
The writer, Anuja Kastia is Associate General Manager, Policy & Advocacy, CRY