Is it not that the very mention of the word school scintillates the images of blossom, security, man-making, innocence, love and care in our minds? When our children, our kiths and kins, the angelic children leave for school, do we not develop a sense that they have landed in a safe haven that will turn them into paragons of creation. This projection is true most of the times and if parents ensue child’s biological existence, schools, teachers and academia guarantees them a dignified and purposeful social and intellectual existence. But in the midst of this prophetic mission, there occur incidents, with varying gravity and frequency, which calls the safety of children at school into question, which awakens us to the horrors of trauma and abuse faced by children in schools – the evils being perpetrated either by teachers against their students or seniors over their juniors. What we have been talking about can be bracketed under the category of intangible insecurity and violence, which may not meet the observer’s eye directly. But there are aspects, much immediate and more serious which highlight the otherwise ignored subject of school safety and these aspects include the very mundane and explicitly visible structural instabilities in school buildings, the seismic insecurity , lack of proper fire fighting equipments in case of contingency, non-accessibility to clean and secure toilets for boys and girls, the lack of safe drinking water in school premises, the absence of proper fencing and many other structural and systemic lacunae which expose the children to a spectrum of vulnerabilities and risks.
Since the beginning of 2nd week of March 2020, the entire UT of Jammu &Kashmir was locked down yet again but this time because of the COVID-19 disease caused by the deadly Corona Virus. The moment the first case of Corona Virus was detected in Kashmir in March 2020, the risk to people, especially children became imminent. The government authorities imposed a strict lockdown in the entire UT of Jammu & Kashmir, resulting in closure of all offices, business, transport and this included colleges, schools and universities too which had just opened after a prolonged winter vacations and post August 2019 situation in the valley. Jammu & Kashmir has a history of natural disasters along with protracted prevalence of insecure situation due to ongoing civil strife and cross border shelling etc. Owing to its peculiar topography, rugged terrain, extreme weather conditions and underdeveloped economy, the Union Territory has suffered a lot on account of natural disasters. Hazards such as earthquakes, floods, fires, droughts, avalanches and landslides often convert into disasters leading to loss of human lives as well as public and private property. In the recent past alone, the earthquake in 2005 and floods in 2014 disrupted lives in the State, followed by civil unrest in 2016 and thereafter in 2019. Children being the most vulnerable, bear the brunt of these occurrences. More recently, after the prolonged shutdown following the abrogation of Article 370 in 2019, children missed out on over seven months of schooling, and had just begun to resume when the COVID-19 lockdown was imposed to curb the spread of the pandemic.
Let us start our scrutiny from what meets the eye easily – the physical parameters and structural odds which our schools are witness to. The problems are more aggravated in government run schools, but private schools too don’t score well enough in overall evaluation matrix. Driven by the Constitutional mandate of ensuring comprehensive schools safety including, but not limited to the elimination of psycho-social abuse, sexual violence and preparedness to fight the natural and man-borne disasters, ELFA INTERNATIONAL in collaboration with Samagra Shiksha Jammu and Kashmir and with UNICEF India conducted a comprehensive school safety audit in all 20 districts of Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir. Though their activities ranged far beyond simple auditing and included the training of teachers and student to mitigate any untoward situations arising in schools at any point of time. The program also covered some intangible and unrecognised facets of comprehensive school safety. Erstwhile, as we were talking about the physical and tangible components of school safety, the organisation had earmarked relevant and decisive indicators like the presence of school disaster management plan, the designation of nodal person to carry out disaster management activities, water, sanitation and hygiene standards, availability of first aid kits in schools, availability of safety and security equipments and such other components of physical denomination. The survey revealed that out of hundred schools sampled, 30 came out to be safe and secure, 48 were moderately secure, 21 were not safe and secured enough and 1% stood out as unsafe and unsecured. Remember, this is a sample consisting of just 100 schools and we are looking at something that might have hardly crossed our thought.
Shall we look at still more obscure and unspoken aspects of school safety and see what tragedy befalls some students once they enter the school premises. Hindustan Times reported not long ago that of the 100 minor rape/sexual assault survivors, 33% dropped out of school and only 9% have plans to resume studies, the survey said for which the commission had interviewed 94 girls and 6 boys. Here, more important than statistics is the prevalence of these gore and inhumane episodes inside schools. When we think of rapes, sexual abuse, molestation and child abuse, we either imagine these incidents taking place in the darkness of backrooms or amidst the buzzing and bustling streets where bodies inevitably intersect each other. But a place like school to be a festering with sexual violence is gruesome and has corrosive effects on the psycho-social well-being of students suffering the ill fate. Of the 10.8 Lakh government schools in the country, over 42,000 lack drinking water supply and 15,000 have no toilets, reported The Times of India. At times, the location of schools is such that it either pushes them beyond the reach of students because they have to travel for miles together or it exposes them to vulnerabilities of varying nature and magnitude.
ELFA contributed to developing a detailed school safety audit checklist which will score each school on the basis of indicators developed covering these points. This tool, checklist and scoring mechanism is designed in a way as to provide scope for the qualitative improvement in quantitative manner and take into considerations equity and inclusion in the context of Jammu and Kashmir. This is a simple scoring system based on certain indicators covering Child Protection, DRR, Health and WASH aspects which is easy to understand and use. The scoring mechanism has a basic minimum score, a satisfactory score and a target level. It has been developed with inputs from UNICEF.