Child Sexual Abuse: Build Protective Mechanisms To Save Our Children

The role of the victims and other quarters of the society in the LGS harassment saga has been appreciable, but we must progress forward and adopt adequate legal and school-based mechanisms to ensure that we remedy the problem.

Despite all impediments, finally due to the complaint of Child Protection and Welfare Bureau Punjab (CPWB), a case has been registered against four employees of Lahore Grammar School under Section 292-A (exposure to seduction), 500 (punishment for defamation), 501 (printing or engraving matter known to be defamatory), and 509 (word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman) of the Pakistan Penal Code, and Section 25 (intentionally damaging or tampering with telegraphs) of the Federal Investigation Agency’s Telegraph Act. The chairperson CPWB, Sarah Ahmed saluted the bravery of the girls who courageously came forward to challenge the traditional and harmful norms in the educational sphere. She has also encouraged the girls across the country to speak up against child abuse. This could enable institutions like CPWB to bring the culprits to book for child protection.

The case has led towards both, passive and active responses from the society. Unfortunately, the parents despite their serious reservations have yet not come forward to file complaints on behalf of these heroic girls. Likewise, the attitude of the school’s administration is quite surprising. Rather than becoming front-liners in this case of child protection, they are toiling to brush the facts under the carpet in a misguided attempt to save face.

Rights activists and legal experts have been undertaking deeper analyses of this case in relation to national and international human rights standards with regard to child protection. Nationally, The Sexual Harassment at Workplace Act 2010 has helped guide discourse, the question arising if this Act is applicable to students in schools, colleges and universities. Barrister Usama Malik, Chairman at International Legal Affairs Committee Lahore High Court Bar Association while talking about a recent judgment of the Honorable Lahore High Court in the case of Asif Saleem v. University of Lahore PLD 2019 407 ostensibly extended the ambit of this Act and included all females including students within its purview.

Pakistan is a party to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). It has an international obligation to adopt all legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect children from sexual exploitation, violence and abuse as per Article 19 and 34 of the UNCRC. The Constitution of Pakistan also accords special status to women and children under Article 25(3) and 35. The state is responsible for making special laws for child protection.

Nevertheless, LGS 1A1 case has the potential to elevate and introduce human rights' education in schools as a tool for child protection. It will be instructive to present a cross case analysis of two teachers at LGS 1A1 — one male teacher as abuser and the other female teacher as reportedly abused who also asked the girls to remain silent since it is a taboo issue. The silence of parents; and negative response of the school administration invites the society at large to revisit the school environment through a human rights lens. Both the process of education and the environment in which learning takes place must embody the principles of human rights, promote a culture of child rights and encourage individuals to take action to protect children.

Since the inception of the United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education (1995-2004), the growth in human rights education has been significant. The UN's message is, “know your human rights because the knowledge of human rights is the best defense against their violation”. However, in a country like Pakistan where 22.8 million children aged 5-16 are not attending school, the cases of sexual abuse in schools may discourage the attendance of school-age children while creating the mistrust and fear among the parents. Equally, the government is still in process to make the education system more inclusive and equitable through eliminating hate material from textbooks and class division among citizens.

In developing countries like Pakistan, there is very limited empirical research that examines how, if at all, human rights education in schools offers a counter narrative to human rights violations, and what the impact of human rights education in schools is, especially when introduced in tandem with no inclusive educational policies in the country. Nevertheless, there is a general consensus in the literature that human rights education has important skills, attitudinal and knowledge bases that need to be embedded in school curricula and the promotion of respect for human rights among students. Furthermore, many studies show that although children who experienced a human rights curriculum could not necessarily define human rights, they displayed a certain philosophy of rights that reflected acceptance of human rights.

While addressing the concerns of parents in particular and society at large to protect the children, there is need for both short and long-term initiatives. The short term initiatives may not be limited to ensuring child protection policies or establishing mandatory sexual harassment committees in schools for ensuring an effective complaint mechanism. The long term initiatives may include introducing human rights education in conjunction with all three fundamental models of human rights education.

First, the value and awareness model that prioritizes human rights understanding to equip students with the knowledge and skills of human rights, develop their human rights attitudes and empower them to protect and promote their rights. While introducing awareness model as the dominant model in schools, it is pertinent to discern that human rights education is not an easy endeavor. Teachers must also be intensively trained both in content and methodology to fully understand and implement human rights frameworks for child protection.

Second, the accountability model that includes the monitoring of human rights violations and advocacy demands for the direct participation of students in decision-making structures at school as well as at the societal level to complain against human rights violations. The children’s participation in decision-making and school governance should be mandatory as per the seminal example set by National Commission on the Rights of Child. Currently, teachers and parents are members of various committees to develop school policies. For this reason, it can be argued that the nature and extent of children’s participation in any kind of activity is determined by the power structures embedded in hierarchical social practices. This model suggests that there is a need for child participation in developing an effective complaint mechanism in schools for child protection.

Third, the transformational model focusing on empowerment of individuals and the communities needs to be employed in the school settings. Children must be encouraged to join child rights networks and organization offered in their communities. Consequently, their participation in such networks will provide an opportunity to take a leadership role outside the school premises to reduce child rights violations while organizing their communities.

However, no mandate of child protection can be ensured without the active involvement of an intensively trained teacher. That is the most important aspect of bolstering child protection in schools.

The writer is a human rights activist and a leadership consultant. She is member of National Commission on the Rights of the Child. She earned her doctorate in Leadership Studies from the University of San Diego, California.  She tweets @RubinaFBhatti