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Tackling Sexual Harassment And Bullying In Private Schools

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Lahore Grammar School (LGS) is in the news these days due to sexual harassment and bullying allegations levelled by current and former students, mainly through social media – Facebook and Instagram, these allegations are not confined to any one particular branch hence signify a culture of sexual harassment, bullying, intimidation and silencing. The aim of such silencing is to protect the reputation and the brand name of the school and not the children who are in the care of these schools, despite their claim of child centric learning model. One also has to acknowledge that similar issues are being raised by various other schools hence the issue is not confined to one branch or one school but seems to be rampant across the private sector (not that public schools are immune to such institutional culture).

Lahore Grammar School was established in 1979 and has over 60 branches across the country. Its’ board of directorincludes: Mrs. Nasrene Shah;  Mrs. Samina Rehman; Mrs. Saltanat Bokhari; Mrs. Nighat Ali; Dr. Neelam Hussain as working Directors; Syeda Abida Hussain; Mrs. Fauzia Rashid, and Syed Abid Hussain Imam as Non-Working Directors. The school provides education from pre-school to undergraduate level, boasts to have branches in 38 cities in 87 campuses, with 50,000 students and recruits 2600 teachers. In the words of its Director/CEO and Regional Head/GM franchise operations, it provides business opportunities – franchising schools through Enterprise School System.

The silence over sexual harassment ended when a former student anonymously posted screenshots of text message sent to a student by one of the teacher along with his photos on insta page on 27th June 2020, all hell breaks loose. The message got instant response from numerous students sharing similar stories identifying teachers, promoting the school to fire four teachers. As the issue has been picked up by the media, Punjab CM, and Human Rights minister took notice, while the district education authority set up a body to probe the allegations. The response from the school administration has been less than sufficient and the initial response reflects the status quo policies of brand reputation protection as well as silencing student voices in the name of defamation and cyber bullying. Ironically the institutions fail to implement or adhere to these laws when it suits them and invoke its implementation when the administration is in the line of fire.

Minister of education assured students and parents that culprits will be punished, however to take any action, written complaint as well as evidence is needed. The minister argued that he has been contacted by girls as well as boys from different schools, noting that the schools knew about these allegations but failed to take any action against the culprits. He encouraged the students to talk to their parents and think about other students who are still in the schools, noting that mere posting complaints online is not enough. He said that his office needs written complaints and evidence to take action, even to the extent of closing schools, promising that a new private schools act is being prepared to deal with sexual harassment and bullying etc.

Considering the situation there are multiple layers around these issues, that needs unpacking. After the passage of 18thamendment in 2010, education was decentralised and became a provincial subject, and it was hoped that the provincial private school regulatory authority will play its role. It also means that different schools of the same brand name would be registered under different regulating authority across the country, and previous research highlights the need to have reliable data on private schools across the country.

Regulating Private Educational Institutions

Punjab private educational institutions (promotion and Regulations) Rules, 1984 state one of the condition of registration, “The incharge and the employees of an institution bear good moral character, are solvent and have not been convicted of any offence involving moral turpitude”. Some minor changes in the registration process were introduced in 2015 and 2016 while the 1984 Act was amended in 2017 as The Punjab Private Educational Institutions (promotion and Regulations) Act 2017 however it needs to be noted that the focus remains on registration process and school fees. In 2018, a notification regarding Complaint Management System was introduced with a focus on the fee charged by the schools. Regulating authority does not specific its role for the protection of legal minor and apart from the “moral turpitude” nothing is mentioned regarding a code of conduct for the schools or teachers. All Pakistan Private Schools’ Federation (APPSF) founded in 2002 currently has no female office bearer in its ranks and it is not clear if the elite school systems are part of the association.

Laws for the Protection from crimes against minors & sexual harassment

 Over the years, Pakistan has introduced a number of laws that protect the rights of children (legal minors).

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Article 37(a) of the Convention states that “no child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.

Section 366-A of the Pakistan Penal Code deals with procuration of minor girls and maintains that whoever induces any minor girl under the age of eighteen years into an act that force or seduce her to illicit intercourse is punishable with imprisonment which could extend to ten years and liable to fine.

Sections 375 and 376 of the Penal Code forbid acts of rape and punish it “with imprisonment for life or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine”.

Punjab Children Ordinance, 1983 identifies penalties related to minors under the age of 16, introducing penalties through article 21 -for giving intoxicating liquor or dangerous drug to child; Article 22 – for permitting child to enter places where liquor or dangerous drugs are sold; Article 26 -for causing or encouraging, seduction etc. of young girl, and Article 27 for Seduction or outrage of modesty.

Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016, introduced the offences of child sexual abuse and child pornography into legislation by inserting sections 292-B and 377-A to the Pakistan Penal Code of 1860. Under the new clauses, (Sections 376, 376A, 53A, 154, 161A, 164A and 164B have been added/amended through this Act) these offences are both non-compoundable (i.e., charges cannot be dropped under a compromise), non-bailable, and punishable for life and fine.

In addition to the above mentioned laws, Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act 2010 is relevant in the current scenario, the law defines sexual harassment as “conduct sexual advances, or demand sexual favours or uses verbal or non-verbal communication or physical conduct of a sexual nature which intends to annoy, insult, intimidate or threaten the other person or commits such acts at the premises of workplace, or makes submission to such conduct either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment, or makes submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual a basis for employment decision affecting such individual, or retaliates because of rejection of such behaviour, or conducts such behaviour with the intention of unreasonably interfering with an individual‘s work performance or creating an intimidating , hostile, or offensive working environment.”

Institutional Culture

Over the decades, the public-school system has lost the trust of the public especially after the nationalization of schools in the 1970s, which led to mushrooming of private schools across the country. These schools not only promised high quality education but also an assurance of elitism, superiority above the public schools as well as students in that system. Parents have happily invested in their children’s’ education and access to these networks and brands that ensure better future for their children. Schools offered better facilities; buildings and syllabus imported from Western educational systems. Schools became sybmols of socio-economic hierarchies, creating exclusive networks and “in” and “out” groups within these networks. Students worked hard to achieve academic excellence but also be the “cool” kid in school. The social hierarchies and classism of the society flourished at an alarming rate and the competition to be better than others became the norm. Students are consumed by the school related activities and parents happily ferry them from schools to academies to extra curricular activities, mostly leaving it to the schools for nurturing values in their children. Added in this mix is access to resources/information/social media and predatory teachers, who preyed on young children growing and living in high pressure environments. Excited at getting attention from a teacher in adolescence years not only validates these young minds sense of self but also makes them feel special, without understanding their vulnerabilities and predatory grooming of young minds. School administration fiercely protects their reputation and their brand, and just like majority of the society makes every attempt to silence young girls when a complaint is lodged. After all these brands have been carefully built and girls are always at fault, they should know how to behave in the presence of predatory men; not wear certain types of clothes, be modest not flirtatious and the list goes on. These women managing the school administrative offices have internalised misogyny to an extent that they continue to protect predatory men and silence complainants, making them believe that they are responsible for criminal and predatory behaviour of men, had they not acted in a certain way or wore certain types of clothes they would not be sexually abused. These women are in cohorts with the sexual abusers and continue to bully young people even when the issues are out in the open.

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Parental Responsibility  

A good number of students have also experienced bullying at the hands of peers, school administration and have mostly not been able to share their ordeal with their parents. Though there are instances where parents knew of bullying and supported the young ones, school rarely handled the situation to the satisfaction of the students bullied on the school premises. When parents fail to nurture self-worth in their children; leave the responsibility of instilling good values to school, and do not have a relationship of trust with their children, they are part of the problem and need to reflect on where they are failing their children. It’s all good to provide material goods for their children but they are also the ones who continued to the prevailing cultures by being absent from their children’s lives at important junctures and not being a present parent.

The Way Forward

The students have taken a leap of faith in the system by exposing predatory teachers and bullies in school administrators as well as among peers. Collectively no one should blame these young children and be willing to support them without making any judgements.

The role of the government is to ensure a regulatory framework is in place so that in future no such incidents happen in any school, private or public. There has to be a code of conduct for all employees in institutions with minors in their care. A formal and easily accessible complaint system in each school that investigates every complaint in a fair manner. A registration system for all teachers whether they work in a private or public school, the registration should be mandatory for all teachers. A national offender register to have the names of all teachers and school staff who have been involved in any sexual abuse and crimes of sexual nature against a child. Rather than asking students to take responsibility to share the information with parents; file complaints and provide evidence, consider a child friendly approach and have a mechanism in place where students can confidentially share the information without the need to share it with their parents. Young girls may be at the risk of harm as not many families have the capacity to understand their point of view and may view these matters through the lens of family honour. Take this opportunity to mandate training to raise awareness about sexual harassment and bullying, and reporting mechanisms available at the institutional as well as government level. Schools should be held accountable to what happens on the premises.

The schools (not only LGS) but other private schools, should have a formal policy around sexual abuse, sexual harassment and bullying. The policy should be available to all school employees, students and parents. A formal complaint system established for investigating complaints and following the government policies in a transparent manner. The inquiry committees to have members from outside of the school administration as well as parents’ representation. Schools to be responsible for placing the name of the known sexual predators on offender’s register and provide professional counselling to students when needed. Considering that school administration has been slut shaming young girls for wearing certain clothes, schools need to have clear policy for uniforms and a right to deny entry to the premises if rules are not followed rather than blaming students for certain types of clothes. These policies should be agreed at the beginning of a school year or admission and has to be a formal agreement between the school, student and parent/guardians.

The Parents should spend some quality time with their children and be more than atm’s or suppliers of material goods. Children need their parents during their school years especially adolescence years and a relationship of mutual trust and respect would go a long way.

The Students have veen brave in highlighting sexual abuse and bullying in schools, their courage is admirable. These young people are also noting the bullying behaviour of their peers and many are reflecting on their past behaviour. These reflections have to be genuine and not about reviving their glory and appease their own egos. By acknowledging their awful past, they should offer support to others and be a role model to break the vicious cycle of bullying. The students who have experienced trauma need support and compassion from their peers, families and educational institutions. We must not fail them again or ask them to take responsibility of educating their parents; dealing with lodging complaints and providing evidence. Parents, schools and the government need to put their act together and for once help these brave young girls and boys whom we all have failed.

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