- Sakshi Sharma , Agrasar
“Ma’am, our teachers address the local children with ‘Aap’ and address us as ‘tu’. (For the English word ‘You’, addressing a person as ‘Aap’ is considered more respectful than ‘tu’ in Hindi). They also highlight that we are from ‘UP’ or ‘Bihar’. Why can’t we be respected? They also taunt me about my height often. Why?” said a 14-year-old girl studying in a government school in Islampur, Gurugram. (Translated)
It is indeed beyond shocking to know that children hear such remarks at a school – an institution that must uphold human rights, especially child rights and more so educate children about the same. Language plays a crucial role in learning the human values of compassion, care, and courage and children learn it primarily at schools and homes. Such derogatory remarks not only undermine the respect and dignity of children, implying a grave violation of their human rights but also adversely impact their mental health. Their sense of identity and belongingness gets lost when they are discriminated against on the basis of their caste, class, gender, origin, physical appearance, and abilities – by their own ‘teachers’.
Mental Violence manifested through discrimination is ‘Corporal Punishment’, a form of violence against children – an epidemic reinforcing and internalizing the culture of violence in school systems and society. Such Mental/Emotional Violence and Structural Violence scars children for their life because the way one speaks to them becomes their inner voice.
National Children’s Day is celebrated on 14th November every year to raise awareness of child rights and their well-being and engaging in collective action.
To commemorate the day, I conducted a session on child rights with children who visit our Agrasar Bachpan centre’s library in Islampur. The session introduced children to their fundamental rights and the United Nations Convention on Rights of Children (UNCRC), a widely ratified convention, particularly by India in 1992. This was followed by a short quiz on gauging the understanding of children on ‘Corporal Punishment in School’ and its grievance redressal mechanism.
All the children were clueless about the term ‘Corporal Punishment’ and didn’t know that Corporal Punishment is banned in school.
“Ma’am, teachers can’t even punish children besides studies?” said a 13-year-old boy (Translated)
According to NCPCR guidelines on Eliminating Corporal Punishment in Schools, 2012, currently, there is no statutory definition of corporal punishment (CP) for children in Indian law. The definition of corporal punishment can at best only be indicative. In keeping with the provisions of the RTE Act, of 2009, corporal punishment could be classified as physical punishment, mental harassment, and discrimination. Physical punishment is understood as any action that causes pain, hurt/injury, and discomfort to a child, however light. Mental harassment is understood as any non-physical treatment that is detrimental to the academic and psychological well-being of a child. Discrimination is understood as prejudiced views and behavior towards any child because of her/his caste/gender, occupation, or region and non-payment of fees or for being a student admitted under the 25% reservation to disadvantaged groups or weaker sections of society under the RTE, 2009. It can be latent; manifest; open or subtle.
The discussions were anchored on the four pillars of UNCRC – The right of children to Life and survival, the Right of children to Development, the Right of children to Protection, and the Right of children to Participation.
While I was listening to such heart-wrenching experiences of children, I felt overwhelmed, numb, angry, and shattered, all at the same time.
I took a deep breath, mustered up the courage, and asked them, “what can be done to stop this?”. Children laughed off and sighed indicating helplessness. Then abruptly said, “Hold protest in School”, “Write a Letter to District Commissioner (DC)”, and “Get the teachers and head suspended”.
After listening to such responses, I informed the children about the existence and role of the State Commission for the Protection of Child Rights and the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, and its guidelines that include the constitution of the Corporal Punishment Monitoring Cell (CPMC) in School Management Committee consisting of two teachers, two parents, one doctor, one lawyer (nominated by DLSA), counselor, an independent child rights activist of that area and two senior students from that school to resolve the cases on CP in schools.
Besides enforcement of laws, regulations, and guidelines, there seems to be an urgent need to hold comprehensive training on ‘Human Rights’ and ‘Children’s Rights’ with all the school staff and children, and its principles need to be integrated into the school system to enable self-reflection and self-regulation. Perhaps, the much-awaited teacher education curriculum framework and evaluation system under NEP 2020 realizes this need. A children’s club/class bal sabha could be created to discuss issues pertaining to their rights and the action to be taken democratically as mentioned in the NCPCR guidelines, 2012.
At the end of the session, everyone reflected and shared their learnings. Children shared that they realized that they are courageous and felt the importance of speaking up when something feels wrong. They now know about the law and rules a little better. One of them emphasized exercising ‘freedom with responsibility’ as an important right.
A girl shared that her heart felt light like a heavy burden was lifted as she had shared these hurtful experiences unfiltered and uninterrupted. All children echoed this thought and felt that these shared experiences have been hurting them for a long time.
I realized the absolute importance of creating safe spaces for children where they can speak up without any judgment, and express themselves through different forms. All they need is someone with whom they can open their hearts and mind, share their story, ask questions, and simply be heard.
I wonder how many children need such safe spaces! Can we all create such safe spaces through our conversation and presence – by building a trusted relationship with children and just listening to them, and understanding their realities?
The terrible irony of our times is that Schools – spaces that are responsible to ensure the safety and protection of children, stimulate the joy of learning, and nurture children to become more confident, and caring human beings are apparently breeding grounds for abject violence.
Co-creating safe spaces to simply ‘listen to children’ is I feel the first step to actualizing the right of children to participate and building solidarity to reduce and eliminate corporal punishment, together.
While you were reading this, you might be feeling angry, helpless, and maybe sad. All emotions matter and speak volumes. But we all could make an immediate change by being conscious of our thoughts, words, and actions and asking ourselves each time we speak to a child – ‘Can I absolutely be present for this child and listen actively without any judgment, questions, or advice and acknowledge his/her feelings and needs?’, ‘Are my words hurtful or inspiring and empowering him/her?’ and ‘How can we find solutions together rather than punishing him/her?’ Let us think before we speak, simply listen first, acknowledge the feelings and needs and find solutions together with children. Words have power – they heal or hurt.
What are we teaching children? Language of fear or universal love? Why do we confuse fear with universal love? Why use punishment in the name of ‘discipline’ and ‘learning’?
Here is a quote by Haim G, Ginott, a school teacher and child psychologist that resonates with my thoughts and feelings – “I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated and whether a person is humanized or de-humanized. If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.”