Gender education in municipal schools

For the last six years, CORO and the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW) have been implementing Gender Equity Movement in Schools (GEMS). This programme challenges gender-related attitudes of children between the ages of 12-15. During this time, team members have gained a lot of experience in working with teachers and students. They have a rapport with the students and are competent in dealing with tricky situations and finding a solution without causing disruption (either within the system or to the person involved).

A CORO facilitator was conducting a session in one of the schools with some Mumbai students aged 11-12. On that particular day, the teacher was absent. The topic was ‘good touch – bad touch’ (pertinent to sexual abuse affecting children). This theme is sensitive and needs a lot of care and tact when discussing it with adolescent girls and boys. The facilitator was well acquainted with the students as she had been conducting these sessions for a long time. As a result, even though it was a sensitive topic, students felt able to discuss it with her. While the discussion was going on amongst the students, the facilitator noticed that some girls were talking quietly amongst themselves. She urged the girls to share their conversation with her. The girls revealed that there was one male teacher in their school who was touching, and behaving improperly towards, some of the girl students. They added that he was paying more attention to the ‘grown up’ girls in their class – asking them more questions and giving them extra opportunities to answer. If they gave the wrong answer, he tended not to tell them off. The girls gave examples of his inappropriate behaviour and even the boys agreed that he often behaved differently with the girls. The students really wanted to share all of this with the school authorities, but were afraid that it might affect them adversely – or that they might not be heard by the authorities. So they urged the CORO facilitator to take their complaint to the headmistress.

The CORO facilitator found herself in an awkward position as the issue was very difficult to manage. She spoke with her seniors within the organisation. It was decided that they should first discuss the matter with the headmistress. The CORO facilitators met her and relayed the students’ concerns. The headmistress was initially shocked and frightened; she said that she never expected such a thing to happen in her school. Understanding the position of the headmistress, who would surely be worried about the reputation of the school, the CORO team said: “let’s avoid any extreme steps while solving this issue, but at the same time approach the teacher concerned, because if teacher behaviour is making students uncomfortable, then it becomes our responsibility to take action to solve the problem”. (In fact it’s necessary even if the teacher doesn’t have bad intentions). They also added that they could decide next steps after first discussing the matter with the implicated teacher.

Initially, the headmistress was confused about making a decision, but she eventually agreed to talk with the teacher. Her only request was that CORO members should also be present, as she felt intimidated on her own. She further requested that this incident be kept secret and the CORO members reassured her about this. She was happy with the CORO position of discussing it first with her, rather than directly approaching any higher authorities.

The headmistress warned the teacher about the meeting, and during the face-to-face, they were accompanied by two other senior members of staff and two CORO members. The CORO facilitator recounted the discussion that had taken place with students in the class. She started the conversation with a general observation that we often say certain things to girls, or touch them, and the perpetrator may feel there is nothing wrong in that. But if the girls object, and experience something different in that touch or those comments, then we need to reconsider our actions and words, and the activity should cease immediately. She added that teachers have a certain image in the eyes of their students and if their actions are detrimental to this image, then the behaviour should stop. She reassured the teacher that they were not there to make a big issue out of it and that their aim was to resolve the situation amicably. However, if similar complaints kept arising, then action would have to be taken. First and foremost, she emphasised that it’s vital to change one’s behaviour if it’s making students uncomfortable. In other words, their reactions have to be respected.

The CORO member tried to comfort the teacher, saying that in today’s world children have lot of media exposure and so their awareness of these issues has sharpened.

Even though the discussion didn’t single out the teacher in question, he identified himself willingly. He confessed that he does do the things under discussion, but he said that he had no bad intentions. He added that he always tries to be free with his students, and tries to keep the atmosphere light. He emphasised that he doesn’t have unwholesome intentions towards girls, but if his actions are misconstrued by students, he will stop them immediately. He also said that he was deeply saddened by the views of the children.

The senior CORO member comforted him by saying that everything revolved around children’s perceptions: if they feel uncomfortable because of our actions, then we need to change our behaviour. She added that this is not a message aimed at just one person, but at all teachers. She reassured him that the team did not intend to make any complaints against him, but at the same time he should take precautions against any future (similar) complaints coming from students.

The headmistress suggested that the CORO team members should also go back to the students and discuss the matter with them, to clear up their doubts and clarify their understanding about the situation. They agreed to follow up.

The CORO team, which played a crucial role in handling such a tough issue deserve appreciation for their careful response. Reaching a common consensus in this type of delicate situation brings up many points. Most importantly, it reassures us of the need for programmes like MRM to create space for children to approach us with issues which would otherwise go unnoticed in a typical school system. Secondly, it shows the level of comfort that students feel with the facilitators, because it is never easy for them to confess that such a thing might be happening to them at school. The facilitators can perform their roles in the best possible way – by providing information and knowledge via these sessions, but also by reassuring students that they have somebody with whom they can discuss these matters. In this case the role played by the concerned facilitator is worth appreciating: she was cautious about taking the issue to the higher authorities and at the same time she reassured the students that the issue would be solved without hurting the reputation of the teacher.

What stands out in this case is the way the issue was solved in a way that was non-threatening for the teacher and the students. The sensitivity shown by the CORO team is admirable. During the discussion they didn’t mention the teacher under suspicion, but kept the discussion to a general level. If the teacher had been named in the discussion, it’s possible that he would not have accepted that his actions had to stop. There was no suggestion of making the teacher feel like a perpetrator of predatory sexual behaviour, but at the same time the discussion was stern enough to make him realise that next time his behaviour would not go unnoticed and they should cease immediately or action would be taken. Secondly, there was an emphasis on the children’s perception – which kept the discussion under control and stopped the teacher being made to feel like an abuser.

The strategies used for discussion – in particular the subtle way in which a strong message was given in a non-threatening way – are laudable. The team’s sensitivity led to a serious issue being solved without disturbing the harmony of the school.

This case is surely a positive step in stopping sexual abuse being perpetrated upon children, although there is still a long way to go.