Extremely disturbing incidents of sexual assault on children inside school premises have been reported in quick succession from Bengaluru. Two cases were reported in the month of October alone and at least nine such cases, including extreme cases of rape, have been reported during this year. The victims include a girl as young as three. While media coverage may have led to increased reporting of such incidents, it must be pointed out that attention came to be focussed on the issue after cases were reported from upmarket English-medium schools. There is a fear that cases in schools catering to the poor may not even come to light.

Sexual abuse of children is not restricted to schools and often goes unreported in several venues across the country. A comprehensive survey conducted in 2007 by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, Government of India, found that 53.22 per cent of over 12,000 children interviewed had faced sexual abuse. The survey suggested that schools constitute a relatively safer environment and most abuses are perpetrated by family members, including parents. Till March this year, 400 cases have been registered under the stringent Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (POCSO) and over 12,000 cases of child rape were registered in 2013 under Section 376 of the IPC. These statistics underline the enormity of the issue, which needs to be addressed in its entirety.

However, following the incidents in Bengaluru, the public debate is over safety in schools. Improving safety measures and fixing vicarious responsibility on school management are important, but there are deeper concerns that need to be addressed. Even as the number of schools are growing, there are hardly any systems to check and verify past staff members, and this has at times let even habitual offenders come into close contact with children. Schools need to scrutinise their teaching and non-teaching staff more closely. Improving awareness over what constitutes sexual abuse as defined by law is essential. It is also important to counsel parents and teachers to actively encourage dialogue with children and make them aware of any dangers so they report incidents. Even basic protocols on the time and place of contact with a child by staff members are not followed in most schools.

Making the law enforcement authorities more sensitive when dealing with such cases is another major challenge, and often the psychological impact of such cases on the victims, parents and other children is not addressed seriously. These are issues that need to be dealt with sternly and swiftly at the national level. The concern is not just that these cases have been reported in one city, but the fact that they may be going unreported in several others.