How to make schools safer for children: Interview with Tulir's Vidya Reddy

To understand why institutional abuse persists, what can be done to prevent it, and who needs to be held accountable and how, we spoke to Vidya Reddy who works at Tulir – Centre for Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse in Chennai.
School student
School student
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In the last few days, Chennai schools’ #MeToo has opened a can of worms with several allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct at premiere institutions against many teachers and people in positions of power. These incidents have happened over the years and decades, showing that sexual abuse is systemic, and the alleged perpetrators, emboldened, until now, where some of them have been arrested, or named publicly by multiple survivors.

To understand why institutional abuse persists, what can be done to prevent it, and who needs to be held accountable and how, we spoke to Vidya Reddy who works at Tulir – Centre for Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse in Chennai.

Q: What are some of the problems at the root of what has come out of Chennai schools now?

Vidya: Worldwide, the disclosure of child sexual abuse is between 12% and 24%. We are not even looking at around 80% who don’t disclose. In the Chennai schools’ case, we are assuming that only the cases being reported happened, believing that instances of abuse happen far and few in between. This is the biggest blind spot that enables it to persist — the inability to accept the possibility of abuse happening. If you believe anyone can be an abuser and every child is vulnerable, only then will you put safeguards in place.

Giving personal safety education to children is not enough. I know parents who have diligently taught what safe and unsafe touch is to their children. However, they fail to explain the process in which the abuse happens. Abusers are masters at manipulation, and target a child’s Achilles heel. For example — if a new kid joins school, and finds it hard to break into the already formed cliques, a teacher who has sexual interest in the child will show special attention to the lonely child, befriend them, keep them comfortable. This makes the child feel wanted. So, when the abuser starts ruffling their hair for example, the child feels special. It escalates from there. You have to talk to children about grooming.

Schools also tend to cover up incidents of sexual abuse because they think it’s a reflection of their institution rather than that of the perpetrator. How the school responds to such a disclosure becomes a reflection of the school.  

Another issue is that there is no proper protocol right now to deal with institutional allegations of abuse. What do you do with the accused while the inquiry is going on? Should they be suspended and transferred somewhere else where they will again have access to children? It's not just schools — abuse is a possibility in any youth-serving facility. Institutional abuse also persists because of people who are ‘professional perpetrators’ — those who take up professions which allow them access to children with the purpose of sexually abusing them.

Q: Though many allegations came out on social media anonymously, several people who have disclosed the abuse are not comfortable coming on record, understandably. How can we hold the alleged abusers responsible and take action?

Vidya: I think the question needs to change to what would constitute justice for the survivor. In my experience, most survivors want to be heard, acknowledged and believed. They don’t even necessarily need acknowledgement or apology from the perpetrator.

One of the major issues with NGOs also is that they push the survivor to file a complaint, without helping them understand the legal process first. But how many people are prepared to navigate the complex labyrinth of the criminal justice system? The process wears you down, re-traumatises survivors. I have seen families breaking up because of this. And given the high rate of acquittals, what is the guarantee that the accused will be convicted?

Q: So, mandatory reporting doesn’t always work in the favour of the survivor. But there is also no mechanism to deal with those accused in institutional child sexual abuse cases and there are also 'professional perpetrators'. How do we bring them to book?

Vidya: There is no easy or standard answer when it comes to reporting sexual violence. As for reporting — unless we build people’s confidence in reporting abuse and till the system becomes more child and victim-enabling, and justice is expeditiously delivered, this conundrum will remain.

Q: What role do parents have to play here and how can they hold the authorities responsible?

Vidya: Even in the cases where children do disclose sexual abuse to parents, instead of validating, most parents tell the child how to circumvent the situation. We skirt around it, rather than addressing it. It emboldens the abusers. Parents need to introspect whether they are providing a congenial and non-judgmental environment at home where the child can talk about these things.

Parent-Teacher Associations (PTAs) also need to take the responsibility of holding schools accountable and demanding safety of their children.

Q: What can schools take away from this, what can they do to make their spaces safer for children?

Vidya: People need to understand that sexual abuse does not always happen in a secluded spot — it could even happen at the last bench of a classroom, while a lecture is happening. Acceptance of the possibility of abuse is the first step.

When hiring, schools should never hire looking at someone’s CV alone. Always have an application that will draw out information you want. Interview people but not just about work experience; evaluate their values. Give them scenarios like what happens if a class 9 student develops a crush on you — how will you handle it? It will be a huge paradigm shift for schools to even consider this, but it needs to be done.

All schools should have a 6 to 8-hour child protection orientation module online for teachers as well as non-teaching staff. They should also have a simple list of how to maintain staff-student boundaries. Everyone should be aware so that no perpetrator can make an excuse for their actions saying they did not know it was wrong.

Schools should disseminate a how-to on the way a complaint or case of sexual abuse can be reported. People usually don’t know. At present, though the school has to report it to the police under section 19 of POCSO Act and should have no job investigating it themselves, I do believe there should be buffer — a safeguarding advisory committee — where the child protection risk is evaluated and then a decision can be taken to report to the police or to the departmental head for further action.

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