A play school is a child’s first step out of home and into the world. Which is why it’s important to ensure that the child is safe and protected against abuse.
Less than a day after the brutal rape of a 23-year-old in the national capital, a three-year-old child was drugged and raped in the bathroom of her play school in southwest Delhi. The rapist was the play school owner’s husband. It emerged that along with this child he had also abused other girls her age.
The same month, in another part of the country, a school bus attendant was arrested for having sexually abused a kindergarten student inside the school. The four-year-old student of a school in Bangalore was allegedly abused for a month before her parents found out about their child’s ordeal.
And, three days ago, on Wednesday, a three-year-old kindergarten student of a school in Delhi’s Vasant Kunj was molested by the security guard of the school. The guard has since been arrested and sent to Tihar Jail.
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These were all cases which got reported and kicked up a storm. But there are several incidents of child abuse in play schools, daycare centres and nursery schools which either go unnoticed or are brushed under the carpet. The issue has parents, teachers and those working with children worried. Play schools, daycare centres and nursery schools are, after all, a child’s first exposure to the world outside home.
The government’s first, and so far the most comprehensive, national study on child abuse conducted in 2007 found that though schools are relatively safer, one out of two children in school faces sexual abuse. Younger children, aged five and under, are vulnerable because they are easy targets and will not understand what’s happening to them. “They are often too small to communicate their discomfort or trauma to their parents,” says Suneel Vatsyayan, relationship counsellor and chairman of Nada India Foundation which works towards promoting a child-friendly and gender-sensitive world.
“Play schools and daycare centres are particularly in focus because there are no rules and regulations governing them,” says Mohammad Aftab, national manager child protection) at Save the Children, an NGO that works for child rights and protection. In the absence of regulations, play schools and daycare centres have mushroomed across the country, with some of them operating out of a 12 feet by 12 feet room. “They skirt the rules by not using the word school’ and instead naming their so-called institute a play centre or a care centre,” he says.
In 2012, Save the Children received four cases of abuse — three of girls — in play schools. In one case, the parent spotted injury marks on the child’s body. It was a case of physical, not sexual, abuse but bad enough to impact the child for a lifetime. In another case, during a casual conversation, the child told the father that the teacher would sometimes touch her private parts. The father was shocked and took the matter up with the school management.
Neena Gulabani, director of Delhi-based Anubhav Learning Centre, who has been working with children for 25 years, recalls an incident where a little boy would start screaming every time his parents tried to change his shorts or trousers. It was some time before they figured out that the child was being abused in school.
Often, in such cases, the parents’ first reaction is to quietly withdraw their child from the play school. This, says Aftab, is a mistake. “You need to make a noise and go to the management, else the incident might be repeated with another child,” he adds.
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Several play schools are now waking up to the reality that children in their premises could be vulnerable to the kind of abuse that can scar them for a lifetime. “No male staff is employed in the school, apart from the security and the driver of the van, which will always have a female staff member to accompany the children,” says Saira Mohan, managing partner at the Whitefield branch of Maple Bear, a Canadian chain of play schools in Bangalore. “And children are never left unattended at any point, even if it is to go to the bathroom.” The children, aged between two and five, are always handed over directly to the parents — in case somebody else is coming to pick up a child from the school, he or she needs to have a written consent of the parents, usually accompanied by a photograph of the person, says Mohan.
Usha Gudi, the centre head for two branches of the play school chain Little Elly in Bangalore, says the school does not allow anybody, apart from the children and staff, to enter the campus. Even parents are allowed only till the school gates and the children are handed over to them by staff.
Vatsyayan, however, feels that parents must visit the play school off and on to run a surprise check. It’s not just important that the play school is safe for the child, infrastructure-wise. The soft aspect of whether the teachers and staff are sensitive towards children is equally important. When choosing a play school, parents must consider this aspect, says Aftab.
Francis Lobo, who runs a small pre-school and day care centre in Thane, also ensures that his staff hand over children only to parents or close relatives. The staff is picked after checking references and identity documents. “On days when the staff responsible for bring children to school and taking them back are absent, I prefer to do the pick-ups and drops myself.”
Gulabani feels communication is the key. “How do you ensure that a two- or three-year-old will tell you that someone’s bothering him or her?” Gulabani and her staff talk to the children constantly and encourage them to share their day’s happenings. They’ve been told, “if you don’t like a didi or bhaiyya or a ma’am, you can always tell us.” Gulabani, who has also kept male staff out of the campus, says this open communication does create pressure on her staff, “but, children come first. They’re the ones we’re here for.” It’s important for parents and teachers to intervene before a child starts feeling that “it’s okay to bear this, or becomes a passive victim or worse, starts feeling that there is no one he or she can turn to for help,” says Gulabani.
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Parents, though, are sometimes bewildered about how to educate their young children about the horrifying reality. “My daughter is just two years old — what can I tell her? What will she understand?” says Bangalore-based Praveen B, who has just started sending his daughter to play school.
Mumbai-based Meenakshi Mishra’s three-year-old girl is set to join a nursery in some months. Her elder daughter, aged 6, goes in a school-run bus but the Thane-based housewife cannot stop worrying until she returns home. “There is no guarantee of safety. Security personnel are also found to be involved in crimes,” she says in Hindi, adding that there should be better background checks.
Kingston D’Souza, managing director of Mumbai’s Kidzee play group, agrees. “We are calling for compulsory police verification before the recruitment of classroom staff.” In addition to a training workshop for its staff and parents, the play group launched a programme in 2011 to help children distinguish between good touch’ and bad touch’. They are also taught to identify and report danger.
Vatsyayan says it’s also critical for parents to check the child-care-giver ratio before putting the child in a play school. “If there are three people taking care of 40 children, the child is bound to be left unattended at some point of time or the other. That should not happen because this will make him vulnerable to abuse,” he says.
Most pre-school buses have only one person to take care of 12-15 children, says Krithika Ramkumar, a Mumbai-based mother of three-year-old twin girls. “Children at that age don’t know how to conduct themselves and need more personal attention.” In a vast, crowded city like Mumbai, this is especially important, she says.
Kolkata-based doctor Chitra Selvan, whose three-year-old daughter goes to a pre-school in the city, believes that most schools are not sensitised about sexual abuse of children. “I try to ensure that my daughter is not left alone with a stranger, be it at home, in school or even at my neighbour's place,” she says. But in most cases, even mothers aren’t oriented about good touch’ or bad touch’. “As a mother, it’s important to gently tell the child that it is not okay if someone touches them on the thighs or private parts and that he should immediately tell his mother if something like this happens,” Selvan says. Interactive sessions by professionals with parents in play schools are important, she says.
Such measures are, however, not a norm in play schools many of which function without trained professionals. In the current scenario, it’s easy to start a play school or daycare centre, or get a job in one. You need no qualifications, no sensitisation lessons towards children, not even a BEd degree. “Unfortunately,” says Aftab of Save the Children, “people think you need no skills to work with little children.”
Indulekha Aravind in Bangalore, Ranjita Ganesan in Mumbai and Debaleena Sengupta in Kolkata contributed to this article