Power of Empathy #FreedomFromFear

October 27, 2020

Guru Govind dou khade, kake lagun paay;

Balihari Guru aapne Govind diyo bataye.

In our culture, we equate Guru (teacher) with God, and school with ‘Abode of god and knowledge’.

But, is this the reality?

I was always taught since childhood to respect elders, my parents, and my teachers, but what about my self-respect? Does a child have any right to self-respect and dignity?

Yes, a child does have every right to be respected. Respect and dignity are the most important values and attributes of the human spirit. It means being valued for what and who you are, what you believe in, and how you live your life. I am well aware of this right now but was not in my school-days. 

You must be thinking by now if something tragic had happened to me during my schooling. The answer is no, nothing tragic happened, but many small incidents that I did not notice then, make me feel bad today when I think of them.

One such incident happened to one of my classmates and a friend. To give a brief background, she was a newcomer and I was too in this one of the reputed schools of the city. She was an average student at that time, one of the kids who were not everyone’s 'favorite'. We were in the 8th standard and at that time, I did not know much about menstruation.  During the lunch break, some girls in the class noticed a stain on her skirt, she was taken to incharge’s office where she was given a sanitary napkin and sent back to class. I must admit here that my school had all the necessities and facilities which one so-called good school should have. The next class after the break was of my class teacher, a lady. She came to the class and got to know about the girl. In our school, the class teacher was expected to know everything happening in the class. Now, since it was the menarche and the girl was puzzled as well as suffering from cramps, therefore, my class teacher had the responsibility to calm her and settle the chaos. She asked the girl to go and sit alone on another bench and not to pollute others, even scolded the girl for creating a scene in the class. She managed to handle the situation well, didn’t she? At that time, I did not know whether she did the right thing or not, but I was surely feeling bad for the way that girl was treated.

Can you imagine the impact it had on a 14-year-old? She started missing classes during her menstrual cycle, this made her lag in studies even more. Moreover, she started feeling ashamed for having periods, started questioning her identity, and wished if she wasn’t a girl!

Now, just imagine, had the class teacher been a little more empathetic, she could have comforted the girl, explained to her that it is natural, and all girls pass through this phase to their womanhood. She could have made her feel proud of herself and explained how important a role nature has shared with the women. I feel that had this all been done, this could have induced self-confidence and a sense of pride in the girl and this entire episode would have impacted her studies positively.

Many of you girls reading this must have missed your classes because of your menstrual cycles and boys who don’t know it yet, sometimes we had to! Wait for a second and ponder, was it the cycle that made you miss the class or it was the apathetic attitude of teachers, fear of being mocked by classmates, etc. that made you take the decision? Schools and teachers indeed have a greater role to play in educating girls about menstrual hygiene and management, organizing workshops for children and parents to sensitize them. They need to be the frontrunner in busting the myths and taboos regarding menstruation. But, if they continue to behave in such an insensitive and uncaring manner, then all our efforts in this direction will go in vain.  

In our country, there is a lot of discussion and debate about women empowerment, but has anybody ever talked about your first experience of womanhood? Have you ever thought about how your little girl is dealing with it? According to Globalcitizen.org and Downtoearth.org, In India, 23 million girls i.e. 1 out of 5 girls drop out of school early when they start menstruating. This leaves them behind in education, employment, and economic empowerment. Though it may not be manifested but in the latent form, it diminishes all our efforts towards better education, women empowerment, etc. It is no secret that education and economic empowerment are key to social empowerment. So, lack or improper education about menstruation and menstrual hygiene practices can have a devastating impact on a girl’s life – present as well as future, and in broader terms on gender equality and the present and future of our country.

Do you know what my class teacher did was not only unethical but also legally prohibited?

According to the Guidelines for Eliminating Corporal Punishment in School by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), anything that lowers the dignity of the child is considered as Mental harassment. Discrimination against the child based on her gender is also prohibited under the same NCPCR guidelines.

Article 21 of the Constitution of India which protects the right to life and dignity includes the right to education for children up to 14 years of age. Corporal punishment, both physical punishment as well as mental harassment, amounts to abuse and militates against the freedom and dignity of a child. It also interferes with a child’s right to education because the fear of corporal punishment increases the likelihood of children to avoid school or to drop out altogether. Hence, corporal punishment violates the right to life with dignity.

Recently, I was reading ‘Choking Childhood’, a research report published by Agrasar in 2018 on School Corporal Punishment - Everyday Violence Faced by Disadvantage Children in India, and I realized that corporal punishment can have a damaging effect on a child’s well-being but still the practice remains pervasive and considered as a ‘non-issue’.

Therefore, I decided to write and share one of my experiences as I felt that there is an urgent need to speak up against it! I hope that now the next time you see a menstruating girl, you are a little more empathetic and conscious of the consequences of your actions on her health and well-being.

Let’s manifest the power of empathy in our everyday life and stand in the values of empathy, dignity, and justice for ourselves and others!

Shailja Tiwari