The shocking suicide of a Class 11 girl student at her residence in Mangadu, located on the outskirts of Chennai on December 18, has once again highlighted the need for ensuring the safety of children in schools. This comes at a time, when Tamil Nadu is viewed by the intelligentsia as the frontrunner of women empowerment, boasting of the highest gross enrolment ratio (GRE) compared to the other states in the country.
The 17-year-old girl was studying in a government school at Poonamallee, which is a one kilometer ride from her place. She took her life when her parents were out shopping. Before taking the extreme step she had written a letter in which she had poignantly stated that “no place is safe for girls except the mother’s womb and graveyard”.
The letter titled ‘Stop Sexual Harassment’, expresses the pain the girl had to undergo because of sexual harassment. “It’s paining heavily. No one is there to console me. I cannot sleep peacefully. That dream repeatedly tortures me. I am unable to study. There is no safety in this society. All my dreams have been shattered,” said her suicide note.
Further, the letter added that every parent should teach their kids and sons to respect girls. She ended the note claiming that “school is also not safe” and not to trust anyone, including relatives and teachers.
A pattern on the rise?
This is the third such tragic incident in which a girl student has ended her life in the past one month. On November 11, a Class 12 girl student of a private school in Coimbatore also took her life and left a suicide note in which she had alleged sexual harassment by her teacher. Close on the heels of that incident, on November 19, another Class 12 girl from a private school in Karur, committed suicide after writing a letter in which she hoped that she should be the last victim of sexual harassment.
After these two cases, the Tamil Nadu school education department launched a helpline number ‘14417’ through which students could register their complaints on sexual harassment incidences in their schools.
The district administration of Karur has initiated a programme called ‘Nimirndhu Nil, Thuninthu Sol’ (Stand Tall, Speak Bold), where school children have to just text a ‘Hi’ message to a WhatsApp number (89033 31098) and officials from the district child protection unit will respond to the message by calling the student back. They would then take down the details and offer necessary aid.
Though the number of calls complaining about sexual harassment incidents in schools have gone up three times, there are no visible schemes or programmes by the state government to raise awareness about fighting sexual harassment and prevent suicides. What has gone wrong?
TN still needs to travel far
Well-known writer and activist Prof Saraswathi said that though education of women is on the rise in the state, there has to be a discussion on what kind of education is being provided.
“Learning formulas, concepts and grammar is also a form of education. But information loading alone cannot be termed as education. We provide information in schools. It is doubtful whether we have a pedagogy in place that aims to prepare the girls to face issues like sexual harassment or how to handle the trauma related to it. We have failed on that front. We need to teach our children that one’s chastity or dignity does not lie in our naked bodies,” she said emphatically.
Besides sexual harassment, our educational system does not teach students on how to empathise with the opposite sex, she added. Pertinently, Prof Saraswathi pointed out that the state has utilised only 10 per cent of the ₹461 crores from Centre’s Nirbhaya fund till April 2021.
Elaborating on what the government can do to prevent suicides among school children, a teacher T Parameswari suggested that entrusting the work of counselling the students to practising psychologists and psychiatrists might be fruitful. According to Parameswari, after the recent suicides, the state government has asked all the government schools to maintain a grievance box for students. The government has also asked the teachers to take responsibility by counselling students as well.
Teachers can occasionally counsel the students but if it becomes a compulsory part of their job, it will only increase their workload, said Parameswari. The teachers are already bogged down with other duties, she felt.
“Besides teaching, teachers are already entrusted with various other duties like surveying, election duties, etc. Instead, the government can send their own psychiatrists to the schools regularly. A student who is afraid of sharing a complaint about a school teacher with another teacher, can get the opportunity to share it with these doctors from outside the school,” she pointed out.
Arivazhagan Ryan, a child rights activist however believed that nothing will change until the patriarchal way of thinking continues to prevail in the society.
“The schools do teach concepts like ‘Good Touch and Bad Touch’. But mostly it is being taught only for the girls in schools. Adding salt to injury, discussing sexual harassment issues inside the classrooms itself is considered as a taboo topic. When that is the case, no amount of programmes are going to stop these kinds of suicides,” he pointed out.
Also, Ryan said that the significant jump in GRE and with the higher number of women getting educated, such sexual harassment incidences were also being reported in larger numbers in the state.
“Many think that sexual harassment cases are on the rise only in Tamil Nadu. No. The media is watchful here and such reports are more and frequent. Hence, it seems like it has become a common affair,” he said
Further, Ryan also felt that the media was not reporting the judgments pronounced in these cases. “The government should popularise the judgments in sexual harassment cases and make people aware of the consequences to help bring down such crimes,” suggested Ryan.