There is so much written and talked about the abuse of children by individuals. But very less has been discussed about the institutional child abuses. It is worthwhile to mention about two types of abuses on innocent children by institutions: first, about the direct exploitation of children by the institutions and second, about how institutions nurture conditions and circumstances that are favourable for abusers.
Just like the misconception of many parents that, since they own their children they have every right to use and control their children as per their wishes, there are certain institutions too who justify their exercise of control over the children. These institutions claim absolute rights over the children enroll with them and rationalize their actions as necessary tools in shaping the personality of children.
An ordeal called ‘Assembly’
In many countries including India, the only institution that holds the exclusive rights over the children during the entire period from dawn to dusk is the School. The abuse does not limit just with the extraordinary academic burden on the students. Starting from the ’school assembly’ under the hot sun to late evening practices for cultural programs, students are held captive by a handful of teaching staff.
When it comes to long morning assemblies, government schools are the most ‘patriotic’ institutions. These schools want their children to stand for a lengthy assembly almost every morning, without even realizing that there are many children among them who are not privileged to get a proper breakfast at their homes. You can watch a large gathering of school children in front of the government schools on most of the mornings. You could keep counting the number of children who faint during such long assemblies. Why can’t these institutions limit their public assembly to once a week and have their prayer, national anthem, and announcements done through public address system in the respective class rooms? Not only morning assembly, many other public functions are done under hot sun, allowing only the teachers and guests to sit under a specially erected shamiana (a temporary ceremonial tent typical in India). Once, I abruptly cut-short my inaugural speech on one of such public functions in an educational institution feeling sympathy towards the hapless children.
Receiving the dignitaries
Children are tortured the most when there is a visit by dignitaries. They are asked to stand in line to receive the dignitary, hours before their actual arrival. Most of these dignitaries are known for their belief that the later one arrives, the more important one would become! In the state of Kerala in Southern India, and also wherever there are Keralites in the world, it is customary for them to parade the children to do ‘thaalapoli’ in honour of the guests (Thaalapoli is a practice of making girls stand in line in traditional attire, carrying a plate containing flowers, sometimes with a lighted lamp, and they are expected to pour flowers on the dignitaries and on the entire stretch they walk from their car to the meeting hall). It is sad to see how the dignitaries, including those religious leaders relish such reception.
Plays and Carnivals to make money through children
I was told about a private school in the capital city of India that literally uses their students for commercial activities. Every year the children are made to showcase plays for the public to whom tickets are sold at very high prices. The intention is not to develop the cultural talents of the students, but to make maximum profits from the venture. The school also conducts what they call a carnival for about three days in a year, where any hooligan from anywhere can get inside paying the entry fee and enjoy the fun showcased by the staff, including the principal. Most of these stalls are put up with the support of unscrupulous elements from outside and they teach the children the arts and science of gambling and cheating. Children are let out freely within the campus amidst criminals giving an opportunity to the latter to abuse them. The parents report that not a single penny received from these activities is utilized for improving the infrastructure of the school.
At the service of teachers
In village schools, especially in the government run schools, the tall and hefty children among the generally impoverished students are made to do all menial jobs for the teachers. Some class teachers and head masters ask the students to help them in their domestic chores and also make them work in their farms. I know a boy whose attendance is marked in school based on attendance every day at the Headmaster’s house. If he doesn’t finish the cleaning work in the master’s house he won’t get attendance even if he has attended all the periods in the school. He has to stand in queue during the class hours in the fair price shop to get the kerosene, sugar, and wheat for the master’s house.
Child sex abuse by School van drivers
There are several instances of child sex abuse by school van drivers reported from various parts of the world. The primary responsibility for this heinous act is on the institutions. School drivers are selected either on contract or on permanent basis, without any proper verification of their past. There is no proper supervision over the staff in these buses. I know about a convent school run by a Christian congregation of nuns where even the principal is scared to control the drunken driver of the school van who happens to be a relative of a former mother superior!
Religious institutions and other agencies
Apart from schools, other institutions that abuse the children by exercising excessive control over them and by infringing their rights are some of the religious institutions, government agencies and public service institutions. Some religious institutions claim absolute responsibility for the entire behavioural conduct of children who belong to that particular community, and criticize, threaten and reprimand the innocent children without giving any convincing reason for their judgments. However the harm is minor and largely inconsequential as compared to the emotional and physical injuries meted out by the schools.
Indirect partners in child abuse
Schools are also indirect partners in child abuse by various other institutions. There are hundreds of commercial ventures vying to get a share of the funds pumped by the anxious parents to make their children globally competitive. They partner with reputed schools and notices and brochures are sent by the school teachers. Parents are lured by the seal of approval of the institution and send the children to those courses, ventures, and competitions. Most of the children are emotionally harassed due to over exploitation of their energy and time, in the name of ensuring a bright future for them.
Is regulation a panacea?
If I mention the word ‘regulation’ or ‘regulatory authority’, there will be many eyebrows raised. Once I was mentioning this idea to a principal of a private school and he instantly protested with anger. ‘No authority should interfere in the affairs of a private school’. Of course, we have too many rules and laws to curb abuses. As we have so many different categories of educational institutions and curriculums, we have so many departments and agencies working crisscross in the area of education. But institutional abuses like those I have mentioned can be tackled only through a proper, independent, and transparent institution which can prepare appropriate uniform guidelines for all educational institutions. A statutory body with representatives of all stake holders (educationists, doctors, social workers, lawyers, and representatives from the government) can be formed where the children, parents and public can report their grievances. Representatives from this body can be involved with the institutions or can be consulted while decisions which are likely to affect the rights of the children are taken. Informality, easy accessibility (by creating cells in every town) and credibility of such regulatory body would certainly ensure fairness and justice for both institutions and children.
Sibichen K Mathew
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