Dangerous times, dangerous spaces

December brings difficult memories for us, when we recall the tragedies of Bhopal, the Delhi rape, and now the Taliban attack on the Army school in Peshawar. There’s been an outpouring of shock and grief following the event, with the majority of those killed in the attack being children. In recent years factional violence has been indiscriminate, with children often becoming “collateral” victims caught in the crossfire. A group of schoolgirls were victims of sectarian violence in Yemen on the same day in December; earlier in the year close to 200 girls were kidnapped by the extremist group Boko Haram in Nigeria. An international study cited by the BBC reported close to 10,000 attacks on places of education across 70 countries in the years 2009-2013.

In addition to such targeted violence, we continually read about molestation, physical and psychological abuse of children inside the school premises, on school buses, in hostels – often by the very people who are entrusted with their care and supervision.

The first kind of violence is a problem of the times we live in, an outcome of the dirty politics played by nation states and their enemies, and perhaps is something we can arm ourselves against (to an extent) by beefing up security measures. Of course, when faced with an adversary that knows no moral code, no amount of security can really protect us, and one can never be completely prepared. But we can at least attempt to study our borders and try to make them difficult to breach.

But what about the second kind, where the enemy is within? Short of viewing everyone with suspicion (which is highly undesirable), how do we make sure that all those who work within a school space are trustworthy? Is it possible to have foolproof screens that eliminate pedophiles, sadists, and bullies?

Educating our children about their own safety, giving them the physical, psychological and intellectual tools that allow them to identify, resist, and survive violence is one important way to creating a protective net for them.

When an incident like Peshawar happens, or when a child in Bangalore is raped, we realize how completely unprepared we are against both kinds of violence. On the other hand, to be completely prepared would be to accept the world for what it is – violent, angry, messy. But is that how we want to live, and how we want our children to live – shrouded by their own fear?

I would say not. We want children to be able to experience the magic of discovery, of learning to be social animals, to make benign mistakes and pick themselves up, and to build relationships without cause for worry or suspicion.

We need to teach our children how to walk the tightrope between understanding that the world is a mean place but knowing that they can change it, given effort and time.