Dr. Urvashi Sahni
President & CEO, Studyhall Educational Foundation, Lucknow
& Non-resident Fellow,The Brookings Institution, DC, USA

Before July 17th 2014 a 6 year old girl was raped in an upscale private school in Bangalore and a young woman was raped and murdered brutally in Lucknow, her mutilated body found in an upper primary school campus. The horrific sexual assault of Nirbhaya in Dec 2012 and the more recent twin rapes and murder by hanging of two teen girls in Badaun ( also in UP) still haunt us. These cases of sexual violence against women and girls are now almost daily instances of a deeper malaise that ails us. The incidence of sexual abuse faced by children in India is not a secret. There have been several studies that have alerted us to the problem. A study conducted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, with the help of Unicef, Save the Children and a Delhi based NGO Prayas in 2007 reported that two out of three children face physical abuse, and 53.2% children face sexual abuse in some form and 21.9% being abused severely. 50% of the abusers were people known to the children and were people in a position of trust and responsibility. It also found that children in institutional care reported the highest incidence of sexual abuse and assault. According to the Asian Centre for Human Rights, number of reported child rapes had gone up from 2,113 in 2001 to 7,112 in 2011. The issue of incestuous sexual abuse still remains shrouded in silence due to misplaced perceptions of ‘honour’ and fear. The extent to which it prevails still lies unmapped. The supreme court recently refused to recognise marital ‘rape’ as a criminal offence! Consider that India is home to 1/3rd of the 10 million child brides in the world! When girls are married off (read, physically, economically and sexually bonded) at 14 yrs, 15 yrs and lower, with no say in the matter, to strangers they have never seen, with no negotiating power, no rights of refusal or choice in their sexual relations with their husbands, is that not akin to rape? According to UNPF, more than 2/3rd married women between 15 and 49 years have been beaten and forced to provide sex. The law protecting children from sex abuse was enacted as recently as 2012 and the one recognising domestic violence as a criminal offence in 2005!
Women and Girls are unsafe at home, at school and on the streets. In a country where girls are largely unwanted, evidenced by the large rates of female foeticide and seen as a liability, evidenced by the high rates of child marriage and trafficking of girls, where education for girls receives scant importance -3.78 million girls are still out of school, unsafe schools will be a further deterrent for parents to send their girls to school. Physically schools are not safe. According to the Census of 2011, 53% households and 11 % schools had no toilets. This is a safety hazard to girls and women as girls have no choice but to relieve themselves in unsafe public spots.

What is the Government doing to address this problem? The current Govt has made some moves in this direction by announcing a Beti Bachao Beti Padhao campaign. Coupling girls safety and their education is a very insightful and intelligent move, provided there is a deeper realisation of what this entails. The interim budget has allocated Rs.100 crores for this campaign, Rs. 50 crores for Safety for women in public transport, Rs.150 crores for safety for women in large cities and Rs.3600 crores for drinking water schemes and for public toilets. Though the intentions are laudable, it has been pointed out by some that while Rs.100 crores have been allocated to womens safety, Rs. 200 crores have been allocated to the construction of a statue! The comparative value assigned to each speaks volumes of the actual importance given to girls and women by the Government.! The statements issued in response to the rapes by Chief Ministers in UP and Karnataka both are also revealing of a general attitude of apathy and impatient annoyance! Almost a feeling of – we have so many more important issues to deal with, why are we focussing so much on this?

While girls education has received some attention as a result of global advocacy and focus, a wider view of education is needed, to include the physical, social and political circumstances in which girls live their lives. Girls lives are in peril!

Several steps need to be taken in order to give concrete shape to the Save daughters Educate daughters campaign. But educators have an important role to play.

Education must include gender studies in the core curriculum of schools so that gendered mindsets which are the root cause of the problem, are critically examined, deconstructed and replaced by more equitable ones. The Government’s recommendation to include a chapter for gender mainstreaming in the curriculum is a welcome move, but more is needed. There should be a whole course devoted to gender studies. Sex Education with a focus on gender power relations, sexual and reproductive rights of women and a more respectful and egalitarian definition of womanhood and manhood should be discussed in schools. We must all learn to value girls and women more! Boys must learn to value and respect women and girls, take responsibility for the increasing violence against girls and learn to respect girls’ right to their own bodies. Girls must be empowered by their education to speak up when they are abused, learn to protest and to protect themselves, to demand their right to bodily integrity and respect at home and outside. Parent communities must be addressed by educators so that they learn to value their daughters for more than the sexual, domestic and reproductive labour they can provide

Civil society must keep up the pressure on the Government so that crimes against girls and women are taken seriously by the police, the judiciary and the administration and stern, expeditious action taken when girls are violated anywhere – at home, in school, on the streets.

Immediate action must be taken to provide the infrastructure required to ensure the safety of girls and women on the streets, in schools and other institutions – toilets in schools, more and better policing, inclusion of more female staff in the police force, as teachers, bus drivers and conductors. There is a flurry of activity by schools and parents to ensure safety for girls on their way to and from school and in school, which is a good sign, but it is not enough! Now is the time to help women and girls realise their absolute right to live life as equal, autonomous persons worthy of respect and to do all that it takes to make this a reality.

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