The recent harassment cases disclosed by students of LGS 1A1 highlight the deep-rooted issue of missing child protection systems within schools. Keeping the definition of a child, anyone who is under the age of eighteen (according to United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child) in mind, the disclosures are not just that of harassment but of child sexual abuse (Pakistan Penal Code). While the Prime Minister said that this government is following a zero-tolerance policy against child abuse last month, there is a dire need for systems of early identification, management, reporting and redressal.

Like many developing countries, Pakistan is struggling with systems for protecting children. Mostly when incidents of abuse and harassment surface, they are often silenced or brushed under the carpet. If they get attention, they are often mishandled, sensationalised and then forgotten. With a reactionary approach to child abuse and neglect, focusing only on punishing the perpetrator or victim blaming, systematic management is never paid attention.

Schools can also play an important role in prevention, management and reporting of abuse. With close interactions and dynamics of trust and power, students can be at a risk of abuse and neglect within the school. These include physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse and neglect. While teachers and administration often misuse their authority, blurring the line between discipline, grooming, abuse and exploitation, abusive and toxic behaviours are normalised. When issues such as bullying, name calling and online safety are not addressed by the school, it affects the student’s mental health and grades, contributing to the cycle of abuse.

A multisectoral, multidisciplinary and a multistakeholder approach needs to be taken to combat violence against children in every setting. There is no act or law for mandatory reporting or that binds schools to have a child protection policy and a regulatory body to ensure that they have mechanisms to prevent violence. This results in a diffusion of responsibility where schools take no substantial steps to protect their students. A majority of schools have not paid attention to safety protocols such as CCTV cameras even in classrooms, anti-bullying policies, background check and vetting of all staff including visiting faculty, volunteers and custodian staff and a designated child protection officer or a body that specifically deals with issues related to violence against children. The code of conduct usually signed by new recruits do not have clauses pertaining to child protection such as not being alone with the student at any given time.

While most teachers in private schools do not go through graduate programmes in education, early identification and management of abuse is not a part of teacher training curriculum taught in graduate programs. Apart from some ad hoc in-service training, most teachers are not adequately sensitised or aware of basics such as forms of abuse, their definitions, identification of red flags including physical and behavioural cues.

There is an urgent need to work on systematic changes which caters specifically to violence against children in schools. Provincial Child Commissions need to be established and a Child Protection Policy needs to be in place. A Child Protection Information Management System and an Offenders Registry needs to be introduced and maintained. Education sector plans should focus on safe learning and preventing violence against children. A school child protection policy needs to be devised with a regulatory body which ensures that schools are following safety protocols addressed in the policy. Every school should have a child protection committee, with student and parent participation and a trained designated child protection officer. It should be made mandatory for all personal interaction with the student, be it teacher, coaches or even custodian staff to have a police certificate along with basic training on child protection. All graduate Education programmes should cover human and child rights, trauma and child protection in detail. Basic life skills and body protection should also be taught to students via age appropriate content and awareness campaigns addressing issues such as bullying and online safety should be encouraged. Special attention should also be paid to children with special needs and those who are more at risk.

A school, being a place where a child spends more than six to eight hours a day not only needs to have a conducive learning environment but a safe space. This is only possible through consciously and actively building efficient systems for protection.