EDITORIAL: Justice for the girls

The Lalitpur incident clearly shows that school-related sexual harassment and gender-based violence are a serious problem in our education system

It begins with harassment of the victim and eventually leads to sexual abuse. This happened to the girl students at Shree Narayan Basic School in Lalitpur. In a hand-written letter submitted to the school principal Friday morning, the students, all below 13 years, complained that their social studies teacher often molested them during the school hours. The teacher, believed to be in his 50s, has been accused of ‘caressing their back, touching their frontal parts, touching their private parts and acting obscenely’. The Lalitpur incident clearly shows that school-related sexual harassment and gender-based violence are a serious problem in the country’s education system. Though such cases are not often reported or investigated by the school authorities, some of the girl students studying in grades III-V in the Lalitpur school have shown the courage to speak up against the abuser, breaking their spiral of silence. The teacher’s objectionable behaviour is not only a gross violation of his professional and ethical obligations, but, if proven guilty, also a crime under the law of the land. The police have arrested the accused to investigate the incident, but neither the school authorities nor the parents have filed a first information report to the police till date. The girl students want to see their case investigated and the perpetrator brought to justice.

Not only in Lalitpur, very few cases of school-related sexual harassment and abuse are reported across the country. The school authorities also attempt to keep such cases under wraps for several reasons. Male teachers and school officials have been primarily found to be the perpetrators of such abuse. Such immoral acts can’t be characterised as ‘relationships’ between teachers and students. The case needs a fair investigation, and no political meddling should be entertained. Political intervention and characterisation of such acts as teacher-student relationship only undermine the gravity of the abuse. In most cases, the school authorities have not held the perpetrators accountable, leading to the recurrence of such cases. The school management committee as well as the principal and senior school staff must understand their obligation to properly investigate any allegation of sexual exploitation, harassment or abuse.

As many students do not fully understand what a sexual offense is, the Lalitpur incident underlines the need for the concerned authorities to ensure that students have access to adequate comprehensive sexual and reproductive health education across the country. Not only the students, the teachers should also learn about what is a good touch and a bad one. Awareness raising events can be organised to tackle the stereotypes, taboos and stigma that make girl students feel guilty for the sexual abuses committed against them in the schools. As the country has no binding national code of conduct to outline the obligations of a teacher and school officials vis-à-vis the students, the government must adopt measures to stop these unlawful practices. Also, it’s high time the concerned authorities created a safe learning environment in the schools for the girl students.

Fake documents

That the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority has filed charge-sheets against three government employees at the Special Court comes as a piece of good news. The three non-gazetted officers are found to have submitted fake academic certificates to join the service. If found guilty by the court, they will be liable to a jail term of up to one year and a fine of Rs 25,000 each. Only last year, the Commission indicted 88 government employees – 27 of them women – who had submitted forged documents as against 64 in 2018/19 and 40 in 2017/18. This shows a pattern: a tendency among job seekers to get hold of “lucrative” government jobs, by hook or by crook, is on the rise.

Bringing the wrongdoers to justice is one way of checking such malpractices, but cracking down on one or two once in a while is certainly not enough. The Public Service Commission, responsible for all civil service recruitment policies and procedures, is also required to make the right efforts to build strong and credible mechanisms to vet individuals and cross-examine the academic credentials that they submit at the time of securing fresh jobs or while in-service. Or else, incidents like these will just go unchecked.