New Delhi: Every day, as her four-year-old daughter cheerfully boards the school bus, Deepti Osatwal's mind remains clouded with thoughts about her child's safety at school - a place once considered as a "home away from home". And Deepti is not the only parent who is consumed by such worry day after day.
"Incidents of crime, especially assault, involving young children are heard every second day. I wish I could afford to teach my daughter at home. But I do not wish to take away her schooling days from her...But neither can I avoid negative thoughts that keep hammering me every single day," Osatwal, 32, told IANS.
Considered to be a safe haven for children, schools are no longer "safe" as they used to be, with increasing incidents of violence and trauma involving students within its premises being reported of late.
The alleged rape of a six-year-old girl student in a Bangalore-based private school in July, and in a similar incident the sexual assault of a five-year-old girl by a senior student in a government school in Delhi sent shock waves among people.
Such incidents have left parents, teachers and those working in the field worried.
"After the Bangalore incident, my daughter's school management assured us that they will start student counselling sessions. But what concerns me is that every institute in India makes tall claims when such incidents happen; but how many actually formulate into something concrete," asked Bangalore-based, Shikha Bamzai, 38, a mother of two daughters, while speaking to IANS on the phone.
According to guidelines laid down by the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR), every institution shall constitute or designate, apart from the school management committee, a child abuse monitoring committee whose primary responsibility shall be prevention of child abuse.
Bharti Ali, founder, HAQ:Centre for Child Rights, said that though there are such guidelines, most schools are not even aware of them.
"The Right To Education Act enforced a school management committee of which even parents should be members. In spite of that, cases of sexual abuse are on the rise. These committees are the most important tools to check such incidents," Ali told IANS.
As a corrective measure, she suggested that the membership of parents should be rotational and not static.
According to a study by Childline India Foundation, a NGO that runs a 24-hour emergency helpline for children in need of care and protection, the reported cases of child sexual abuse have risen from 158 in 2010 to 1,537 in 2013.
"As a mother of a three-year old girl, I am extremely apprehensive about sending my daughter to school, especially in the school bus. It is very difficult to teach such a young child what is good touch and bad touch. It is for the school managements to ensure a secure environment," Suparna Das, a 28-year-old mother, told IANS.
According to Nishit Kumar, head, communication and strategic initiatives, Childline, having a Child Protection Policy (CPP) is a must.
"CPP is the method to ensure that every space used by children is safe. It is the minimum standard every institution must adopt," Kumar told IANS from Mumbai.
CPP is also an important part of DCPCR guidelines, which states that both parents of students and the teachers have to sign guidelines to ensure a safe environment when the child joins school.
While schools need to take important measures, parents also have an equally important role to play and need to change their ways of communicating with children, say experts.
"Parents have an important role to play. They do not discuss issues with their children, they resort to violence, and in actual sense parenting in India is still very poor," Ali added.
Sameer Malhotra, director, mental health and behavioural sciences, Max Hospital-Saket, stressed that close involvement of family members, teachers, counsellors, peers and psychiatrists can help in creating a more secure environment.
"Early identification, multi-pronged approach in a sensible manner can help. Such programmes should include proper comprehensive mind health assessment and assessment of likely contributing/environmental factors," Malhotra told IANS.
An aware parent said that she has taught her son not to speak to strangers or accept gifts from them.
"As parents we should keep our eyes and ears open, especially when both of us are working," Ujjala Bhattacharjee Gupta, a 34-year-old communication professional, told IANS.
Agreed Kiran Mehta, principal, Salwan Montessori School, Mayur Vihar, who said awareness is the key word.
"It is extremely important to hold awareness camps and counselling sessions on sex education and make girl students aware of the different kinds of touches. This becomes more important because parents still do not discuss the issue at home," Mehta told IANS.
(Shweta Sharma can be contacted at email@example.com, and Shradha Chettri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)