On February 17, 2005, the principal of a government school in north Delhi raped a Class 10 student of the school. The principal, who was also the girl's private tutor, took the girl to three cronies of his. The four eminently respectable men - a school principal, a vice-principal and two businessmen - gang raped the 16-year old girl during the night. The next morning they sent her back to her parents.
For a couple of days the news was splashed in the newspapers and the four criminals were arrested; since then, nothing has been heard. In recent months, several instances in which school teachers and principals have sexually abused girl students, have come to light.
We know that crimes committed by powerful, moneyed men frequently go unpunished. Rape is one of the most under-reported crimes. Even when reported, conviction rates are abysmally low. Hanging one Dhananjoy in Kolkata - a lift operator who 10 years ago raped and killed a young girl from an apartment in the building where he worked - does not bring justice to the tens of thousands of girls who suffer sexual abuse. In fact, in this case, the jubilation of the middle class indicated collective catharsis - purging guilt and asserting self-righteousness and power. Would the same Indian State ever hang a middle-class school principal? Far from capital punishment, the principal might not even have to serve a long or rigorous term in jail.
A school principal is the modern-day 'guru': symbolising the authority of knowledge and wisdom. If such a person abuses his position, he deserves severe punishment, because he is teaching youngsters the worst values. Will male students learn that rape is legitimate, good fun?
Mass media reinforces the image of women/girls as commodities, men as consumers. Schools ought to be the nodal point for socialisation into a humane, democratic ethics. If educationists stoop to rape, they give out a message to students: that violence against women is acceptable, normal and unavoidable. How will female students ever feel safe? At a time when the State is committed to ensuring Education For All, such acts drive away girls from the very portals of education. At the least, the system should be accountable, due processes of law set in motion, and the guilty brought to book.
A 2002 study of Mumbai municipal schools by Vacha Kishori Project Team notes, "We tried to raise the issue of unnecessary touching and attention by male teachers. The girls resented the behaviour of male teachers and expressed their discomfiture to us. The principal of the school did not believe the girls, despite the fact that two municipal school teachers had been arrested for confinement and molestation of girl students while school was on. In one school, a teacher wrote graffiti on the walls of the girls' toilet; the girls did not want the research team to intervene because this would render them even more vulnerable."
In 1993, the Government of India ratified the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) resolution explicitly committing itself to eliminate gender-based violence, defined as "a form of discrimination which seriously inhibits women's ability to enjoy rights and freedoms on the basis of equality with men". Clearly, we have a very long way to go before this commitment is realised in practice.
Large numbers of girls remain out of school due to poverty. Teacher trainee interns in government schools in central Delhi reported that many girls' attendance is erratic, their play, study and medical needs unmet, and priority given to the tasks of sibling care, cooking and other household tasks.
Gender stereotypes are reinforced through curricular and extra-curricular means, such as home science being offered exclusively to girls, and sports to boys. Teachers compound gender discrimination by asking girls to make tea, wash cups and sweep floors in the classroom, as well as taunting them with statements like, "Why do you study? Anyway you will be sweeping floors and cleaning dishes!" Thus in our schools there is a 'hidden curriculum' perpetuating gendered stereotypes of 'strong, competitive male wage-earners' and 'docile, homely girls' (data from discussions with Bachelor of Elementary Education students, Lady Shri Ram College, 2004-05).
The Education For All Global Monitoring Report (2003/2004) found that gender parity remains a distant prospect in 54 countries, including India and Pakistan. In India, "almost 90 per cent of single teacher schools, which account for at least 20 per cent of all schools, are staffed by men and 72 per cent of two-teacher schools have no women teachers."
We need to look at the implications for girls' safety and security, enrolment and retention. With these priorities in mind, suitable policy changes should be made. Provision of basic facilities like toilets, safe drinking water and crèche facilities for younger siblings is also essential.
Women's groups, civil liberties and human rights organisations have over the past few decades succeeded in improving laws dealing with rape, sexual harassment in the workplace as well as sex-selective abortions.While implementation of the laws is patchy at best, concerted campaigns have resulted in greater public awareness and formation of committees in colleges and universities to deal with sexual harassment. Similar provisions need to be devised within the school system as well. Teacher training and in-service courses should include gender sensitisation modules.
Concerned organisations need to continue to conscientise society, and push for realistic checks and balances assuring basic safety for girls.
Mothers are often the ones to be caught in the crossfire when their daughters are harassed. Perhaps they would also be the strongest resources for grassroots vigilance. In 2001, a girl studying in a government school in north-west Delhi, told her mother that her school principal repeatedly touched her. It turned out that he was a habitual offender, who had abused innumerable of his wards over the years. A group of furious mothers and a few fathers stormed into the school and confronted the principal. He had no option but to confess his guilt. He proffered an apology and promised non-repetition. He was due to retire in a year's time - during which there was no repetition of his offence.
In such courage, awareness and action displayed by ordinary people lies the hope and the promise of real change.