Amid Rising Cases of Sexual Abuse, India's Ashram Schools Are Failing Its Girl Students

Incidents of sexual exploitation of tribal girls at residential schools have highlighted the need for a comprehensive policy to ensure their safety.

While the mainstream media was focused on the sexual harassment allegations against the CJI, a relatively more severe incident was being reported from Chandrapur district of Maharashtra. Reportedly, till now, seven minor girls have been confirmed to have been sexually assaulted in the tribal hostel of the residential school of Rajura block there.

The horrific incident came to light due to the deteriorating health conditions of the minor girls, all in the age group of 8-11 years. Their visiting parents saw several girls in an unconscious state in the hostel – which is funded by the state tribal department. Some of the girls were referred to the Government Medical College, thus bringing the matter to the state’s attention.

As the investigation progresses involving local NGOs, the severity and scale of sexual exploitation are becoming more and more visible. In just the past few weeks, the growing number of victims has indicated the possibility of large scale sexual exploitation in the tribal hostel run by Infant Jesus Education Society in Rajura block.

Politicisation of the issue

The Nagpur bench of the Bombay high court took cognisance of the issue and constituted a panel to look into the matter. It ordered the paying of compensation to the parents of minor girls, thus concluding the legal redress in this specific petition.

On the basis of the order, local politicians questioned the intent of vulnerable parents and made derogatory statements – resulting in the registration of an offence under the Prevention of Atrocities Act. Lawmakers, rather than showing sensitivity towards members of a vulnerable group, tried to show monetary benefits as the cause of filing of complaints. This attitude attracted the attention of the State Commission for Women, which issued a show cause notice to one such lawmaker.

It appears that local interest groups are politicising the incident rather than focusing on delivering justice to the minor girls. It is reported that the Congress Chandrapur district chief was made to resign due to one such cash-for-compliant allegation.

Students having lunch in one of the Ashram schools in Kurkheda block of Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra. Credit: Santosh Gedam

There is an urgent need to go beyond such politicisation and look into the residential education policy to provide justice and a sustainable solution.

Residential schools

The state tribal department runs residential school facilities which are located in far-flung rural areas. Many residential schools are given to private education trusts or societies for management and are funded by the department.

Often these bodies are run by local political leaders. As has been reported, in the case of Infant Jesus Education Society in Rajura, the body is run by an ex-MLA. As per the state tribal department, a total of 55,000 students were studying in Ashram schools (residential schools) as of 2014-15.

During my fellowship in Gadchiroli, I visited several Ashram schools, where education has not yet been made a priority. The institutions have become places for feeding tribal children – that too in an undignified way and the quality of food served is highly questionable.

In just the last few years, there have been multiple cases of sexual exploitation of girl students in residential hostels funded by the tribal department in the surrounding districts.

Legal intervention

A petition was also filed in the Bombay high court in 2013 relating to the safety of tribal students in these Ashram schools. A petitioner highlighted deaths of hundreds of tribal students due to several issues.

Despite this legal intervention, the Rajura incident shows that the safety and security of children, particularly girl students, have remained an unsolved issue as it has escaped serious thinking on the policy framework and received only knee-jerk reactions from the government.

Also read: Closure of Schools in Odisha Leaves Marginalised Children in the Lurch

In the Rajura case also, the government chose to send the joint secretary of the tribal department to visit the tribal hostel. Surprisingly, the Rajura school has received a grant of Rs 4 crore in the last three years from the state government, indicating a need to examine whether public spending is leading to significant educational outcomes.

Taking notice of the situation, the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) also visited the Rajura hostel where minor girls were reportedly offered as objects after sedation to outsiders for sexual exploitation.

Despite clear statutory and constitutional safeguards, and the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights, Ashram schools have become places where minor girls are open to the risk of exploitation. There have not been any clear educational outcomes even after the spending of crore of rupees.

Education policy

The government has implemented the residential school education policy to provide schooling facilities in rural areas. The Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya – an affirmative action by the Central government to improve the significant gender gap in literacy rate at the block level – has been implemented for this very purpose.

However, incidents of sexual exploitation, like the one in Rajura, hamper the cause of reducing the gender gap in literacy. Thus, both the Central government and the Supreme Court must address the issue of safety of these minor tribal girls.

The way ahead

The interventions by the Odisha government can provide a template for other states in terms of addressing the issue of sexual exploitation of the girl students in residential schools. The government has removed male staff members – teaching and non-teaching ones – from the KGBV due to a similar incident of sexual exploitation.

The decision was reportedly taken with the consent of the Central government. Even the Orissa high court endorsed it, remarking: “The decision cannot be said to unreasonable as it is in the larger interest of the girl students who are in their tender age and from the remotest areas of the state, dominated by tribal people where there were even no police stations to report any casualty if it happened.”

Santosh Vishwanath Gedam is former Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellow and doctoral student at IIM Ahmedabad.