Schools are the places supposed to be safe for the children, both the girls and boys- the nurturing place where they can grow up as good citizens. However, are our schools safe for the half of the students- the girls? I spoke to dozens of girls since I have started to explore an answer to this. The accounts of the girls so far suggest that the schools are becoming a nightmare for the girls in Dhaka and other cities.
I spoke many primary school-girls like Mili (10), Jarin (12), Aniqa (9) who were subject to a wide range of gender-based violence in, around and on the way to school. The people responsible were the school-bus helper, librarian, and canteen boy respectively. To protect the victims, I am not using the real names and not mentioning the institutions for now.
From these girl child’s accounts, it seems that the violence start with unwanted sexual touching. The girls even were not aware of the nature of the unwanted touching initially. They neglected the inappropriate behavior thinking it just affectionate. However, as they continued to grow up, they began to understand the difference between affection and harassment.
Mili tolerated such sexual harassment until she had left that school last year. She continuously showed her disapproval in every possible way she could but since she was a little kid she couldn't do anything much, the bus conductor always forced her to sit at the last seat so that his crime of sexually harassing a minor girl does not fall in the eye of anyone.
The school librarian on several occasions tried to molest Jarin, fortunately, she was self-conscious enough to protect herself. But she often saw the librarian molesting her vulnerable and helpless friends in the shade of showing affection. Hence, such things continue to exist in her school since no one has enough guts to take any action.
I am quoting what Aniqa shared with me, ‘Whenever I go to the canteen alone, the canteen boy touches me in an inappropriate manner in my different body parts. The school canteen is at the corner of the school area thus very few people remain around. I always try to escape from him but sometimes I failed and until someone come over the canteen he continues to exploit me physically. After losing all my patience and endurance, I spoke out to my friends about it and I was surprised to hear that all my friends had the same complaint. We decided to go to our principal and complain about this matter. Unfortunately, our principal did not take any action against the canteen boy and took this matter very lightly.’
A few years ago, the peon of her school harassed a minor girl. When the student's protest against such immoral act teachers ignored it by telling it's just a hoax and the vice principal tried to neglect the issue by his unacceptable comment's but after successful demonstration carried out by parents and students the vice principal was discharged and the peon was thrown out of the school as well as school was temporarily closed. Due to the deterrent effect of this incident, such incident never occurs in that school.
I extended my research from school going girls to university girls and found that 12 out of 15 girls has been physically harassed before the age of 16 But never disclosed it to anyone due to fear and shame. Not every girl could recover easily from such incidents. Many girls are still going through the trauma of physical exploitation and regret for not being able to do anything against it. Each of the girls had at least experienced 3/4 such incidents in their early stage of life.
Such widespread incidents often remain undisclosed. It is because the little girls cannot find the words to explain to their parents about such issues they are facing if they even find the way to explain still sometimes they fail to gather their guts to tell their parents about it. Even if they pass through the first two stages and reveal to their parents about the physical abuse, the parents might not take any action and remain silent in order to save their ‘social status’ as they think that if such shameful incidents come out it will be their daughter who is going to suffer the most.
But they are not aware of the fact that how destructive such incidents could be to their daughters. Sexual abuse of minor girls can cause both physical and psychological damage. Those girls might get tormented by guilt and shame. The shame of such abuse makes it harder for the minor girls to move forward in their life. They might die deep inside. SoIt's the responsibility of the parents that if a child confides, they should take it as a serious matter and stop turning a blind eye.
The writer is doing her honors at the Department of Criminology, the University of Dhaka.