Understanding structural issues
Three cases of sexual assault and rape were reported against children in different schools in Bangalore in 2014. The perpetrators, in all three cases, were teachers, gym instructors, or others who occupied positions of power and were known to the children. Some of the preventive measures that have been suggested were to install CCTV cameras and change students’ uniforms. Feminists have long pointed out that increased surveillance or restricting the movements of the victim or blaming the victim are not solutions to sexual assault. Other responses to these cases of child sexual abuse (CSA) also centre on creating awareness on CSA among ‘victims’ alone or teaching them safety and how to protect themselves from sexual assault1. However, research suggests that instituting prevention programmes for the potential victim alone is not useful (Bolen 2003). Like all discourse on rape and sexual violence on women, the onus here is on the child to protect herself/himself/hirself. Insights from the recent debates on sexual violence on women must permeate into thinking about child sexual abuse too.
As the feminist engagements with rape have shown us, sexual assault is not about sex but about power and the entitlement to power that men have2. If we think about child sexual abuse in schools, especially that committed by teaching and non-teaching staff on students in primary and secondary school, as an act of power by adults, we need to consider the ways in which that power works in school spaces.
Padma Sarangapani, examining a village school in Karnataka, argues that one of the most prominent features of Indian schooling is the “dictatorial authority of the teacher and the centrality of discipline to the schooling process” (Sarangapani, 20013: 3). She examines the nature of authority within the classroom arguing that the teacher-student relationship is viewed as the parent-child relationship, which is unquestioning, uncritical and demands absolute obedience from the child (Sarangapani, 2003). One of the ways in which authority is maintained in schools is through the production of the category of the good boy/good girl/good student who is obedient and unquestioning. “In India”, parents view “a sanskari child as one who is obedient, respectful of elders and socially conforming…” (Nawani and Jain, 2011: 514-515). TARSHI’s Orange Book: A Teacher’s Workbook on Sexuality Education understands harassment and abuse in the school as something that occurs because of power relations. It recognizes that teachers have authority and power, and that power can be exercised in different ways (166-167), especially working against those from marginalized groups/communities. Elina Harjunen (2011) elaborates on how schools can be more equal spaces. She explores how learning in a Finnish school is based on the different demands that students make of teachers and the school. This is not just a child centered approach but a way in which students, as a group, take active charge of their own education, not just in terms of pedagogy, but also in terms of the ways the teachers relate to them. It is this wider sense of the agency of the child in the school that needs to be inculcated.
In all the cases that have been reported, the perpetrators in the schools in Bangalore are teachers (and not older children) who occupy a position of power vis a vis the students. If we understand sexual violence as an act of power, prevention of sexual violence involves subverting this power as well as talking about pleasure and promoting healthy relationships. One of the ways to subvert this power equation is for teachers, gym instructors and other adults to understand the bodily integrity of the child, questions of consent, and that the body of the child belongs to her/him/hir and no one else. Adults need to respect the autonomy of the child and to seek the consent of the child at all times. Shilpa Phadke (2013) elaborates on teaching consent to her daughter and others around her:
“Even before she was two, we talked about how she did not have to hug (or be hugged) anyone she didn’t want to. I am considered a rather odd mother, because I actively discourage friends (many of whom understand) and extended family (many of whom don’t understand at all) from picking her up or even touching her without her express permission. I’ve told her she doesn’t have to be friends with anyone just because they’re my friends. I want her to know that she always has a choice, that her will and desire are important. I hope I am laying the groundwork for her adolescence, when she will be able to say ‘no’ with conviction and self-assurance.”
Since December 2012 we have seen a heightened public debate on sexual violence. While the conservative response to this has been a sort of moral panic around women’s safety, a more important response has centred on claiming women’s rights to public spaces and sexual pleasure and women’s right to freedom from violence. The other relevant response has been to work with men and boys and ‘tell them not to rape’. With this recent series of incidents on CSA, we risk slipping into a similar moral panic around children. What if we think along the lines of these current debates in the case of CSA in schools? The questions then that we might ask are: how can we nurture different ways in which adults relate to children? What are the ways in which we can teach ‘adults not to rape’ and understand questions of consent and bodily integrity of children? What are the ways in which there is a nurturing relationship between adults and children in schools one which is not based on discipline, punishment, and a sense of entitlement?
An important part of the debate on violence against women has emerged from masculinity studies which talks of the sense of entitlement to power that men have. Men experience masculinity as an ‘entitlement to power’ which goes along with a sense of vulnerability and powerlessness. Thinking parallely in the context of CSA, what are the ways in which adults feel entitled to bodies of children, or to think of children as ‘belonging’ to them, being powerless? Despite the legal systems recognizing that children have rights, children are socio-culturally viewed as dispossessed, and not yet citizens – they cannot think for themselves, they cannot act, they must be told what to do. The idea of the child as an autonomous being must be allowed to seep within the classroom.
Child Sexual Abuse is not only the way in which perpetrators yield power, but is also deeply tied with the ways in which the agency of survivors/victims is thwarted or denied. CSA exists in school spaces that refuse any talk about sexuality and the body. Sexuality education becomes one of the ways of talking to children about their bodies, and their sexual and reproductive health. My research points out that along with classes on sexuality education, the school has to also recognize the child as a sexual subject. Schools seek to regulate student sexuality within the school spaces constructing them as what Allen (2007) terms “‘ideally’ non-sexual”. At the same time sexuality education classes constitute them as sexual subjects who will presumably have unsafe sex and thus need to be taught about contraception and safe sex. Though this is done in an instrumental manner, it still presumes a sexual subject. This contradiction between the ‘ideally non-sexual’ subject and the sexual subject doesn’t allow the adolescent any space to exercise sexual agency safely3. Regulation of the student’s body and sexuality is a way to deny children their agency.
Uniforms and the body are sites of control of a child’s sexuality and gender in schools. Many schools insist on checking whether the girls and boys are appropriated attired. Students are made to understand that privacy and bodily integrity can be violated by the teachers at any point of time in the name of discipline and modesty – like checking if the boys are wearing vests or if the girls are wearing slacks under their skirts. What sense of agency or consent does one then expect the students to understand or develop? This violation of their privacy also tells them that as adults it is acceptable and legitimate to violate someone else’s bodily integrity with impunity, and that modesty lies in covering up and being non-sexual.
These questions have helped us think about CSA in school spaces in a larger structural manner, to understand the ways in which power and authority work in school spaces and how that allows abuse to happen. Just as working with men is one way in which rape is being addressed, working with teachers and non-teaching staff, having gender and sexuality sensitization programmes with them before the beginning of the school year will go a long way in undoing the unequal power relations that result in child sexual abuse.
The following exercise, excerpted with permission from the ‘Orange Book: A Teachers’ Workbook on Sexuality; TARSHI, New Delhi, 2010′ (Page 177-180) is for teachers and perhaps discussion at the high school level.
Chapter 6 – Harassment and Abuse
Exercise 18 – Harassment of Students
Go through the following case study of actual incidents and reflect on the questions that follow.
Teacher held for sexual abuse of students
September 12, 2009, Pune, Times of India
The Alandi police on Friday arrested a 24-year-old teacher at an ashram near Alandi for alleged sexual abuse of his students for the last two months. The police have identified the suspect as Vighneshwar Patil of Jalgaon. The incident came to light when a 14-year-old student disclosed the incident to his parents, said inspector Ratansinh Rajput.
“We have booked Patil under section 377 (unnatural offences) of the Indian Penal Code. The suspect had sexually abused five other students also from the ashram,” Rajput said.
Rajput said that, according to the complaint, the suspect used to call the students to his room and, on the pretext of massaging his hands and legs, used to sodomise them. “There are 16 boys studying at the ashram. The suspect had abused five of them in the last two months. We are investigating whether other students have also been abused,” Rajput said.
Have you heard of similar incidents happening in schools?
Can sexual harassment happen to men or boys?
It is possible that the teacher can say he was only asking the students to massage him. Would that be harassment as well?
How would you respond to such an incident were it to happen in your school?
All people have the right to a life of safety and dignity. Unfortunately, we know that many people experience horrific abuse in their daily lives. Addressing issues of sexuality and breaking the silence around violence and abuse helps build an environment of safety and trust in which students can feel good about themselves and coming to school.
As it is students are often scared of complaining about their teachers because they fear they will get poor grades or be failed in their exams or that their parents will be summoned and humiliated in the school. Unfortunately, there are some teachers who take advantage of this and make certain students the butt of their sexual jokes or comments or even sexual touches that at times masquerade as an accidental brushing past and at other times are more blatant. Many times students find themselves helpless and just suffer in silence. As a teacher, you can make your students aware that they do not have to put up with this. You can also notice which of the teachers your students are derogatory about, or uncomfortable approaching. There may be other reasons for this – the teacher may not be good at the subject or may be very strict for example – but be aware that sexual harassment could be a reason too…
The presence of an active sexual harassment committee in school will make everyone – teachers and students – aware that the school frowns upon this behaviour. Does your school have one? Setting up a sexual harassment committee involves outlining its functions, scope of action, complaints procedures, redress mechanisms, actions against false complaints, and making students and teachers aware that it exists and how it can be used.
- In the case of child sexual abuse, both men and women can be perpetrators.
- Children are often taught to only say no and not how to express desire or ask for consent. Acknowledging the child as a desirous subject allows the child a more complex sense of self and agency.
- Allen Louisa. (2007). “Denying the Sexual Subject: Schools’ Regulation of Student Sexuality”. British Educational Research Journal, 33(2), 221-234.
- Bolen, Rebecca. 2003. “Child Sexual Abuse: Prevention or Promotion?” Social Work. 48.2. 174-185.
- Harjunen, Elisa. 2011. “Students’ Consent to a Teacher’s Pedagogical Authority”. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research. 55.4: 403-424.
- Nawani, Disha and Manish Jain. (2011). “Learners and Learning in India: History, Perspectives and Contexts”. In Yong Zhao et al (Ed.) Handbook of Asian Education: A Cultural Perspective. New York: Routledge.
- Phadke, Shilpa. 2013. “Lets teach our kids about consent and free will, not just danger.” Hindustan Times. January 28, 2013.
- Sarangapani, Padma. 2003. “Childhood and Schooling in an Indian Village”. Childhood. 10: 403.
- TARSHI. 2012 (2010). Orange Book: A Teachers’ Workbook on Sexuality Education. TARSHI, New Delhi.
The author is a doctoral candidate at the Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Her doctoral research focuses on the construction of adolescent sexuality and the politics of sexuality education in contemporary urban India. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.