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Students taking lunch in one of the Ashram Schools in Kurkheda block of Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra

The recent incident of sexual exploitation of minor tribal girls in residential school raises the primary issue of safety and security before we evaluate the educational outcomes

As the mainstream media is focused on the sexual exploitation allegations on the CJI and has given due space and time to scrutinize and question every decision that has happened in the Constitutional Court, relatively more severe incident is being reported from Chandrapur district of Maharashtra since the first week of this month. As reported, till now six minor girls have been confirmed to have been sexually assaulted in the tribal hostel of the residential school of Rajura block where their parents sent them for residential education.

The horrific incident came to light due to the deteriorating health conditions of minor girls in the age group of 8-11 years. Their visiting parents saw several girls in an unconscious state in the hostel funded by the State Tribal Department. As the investigation progressed involving local NGOs, the severity and scale of sexual exploitation are becoming visible. In the past few weeks, progressively numbers of victim girls have increased showing the possibility of large scale sexual exploitation in the tribal hostel run by Infant Jesus Education Society in Rajura block. In due course of time, the Nagpur bench of Bombay High Court has taken cognizance of the issue and constituted a committee to look into the matter and has also passed orders to pay compensation to the parents of minor girls. Certain atrocious statements by the local politicians questioning the intent of vulnerable parents have resulted in the registration of offense under the Prevention of Atrocities Act. It seems local interests groups are politically using the incident rather than focusing on delivering justice to the minor girls. Historically, the issue of safety and security of girls in residential schools have followed a wave pattern in terms of state response. To go beyond such politicization and look into the residential education policy is much needed by the state to provide justice and a sustainable policy solution.

The State-Tribal department runs residential school facilities. These residential schools are located in far-flung rural areas. Many residential schools are given to private education trusts or societies for management. The department funds these bodies for running the residential school facility. Often these bodies are run by the people having local political power. As reported, in the case of Infant Jesus Education Society, the body is run by the Ex. MLA. As per the State-Tribal department, a total of 55000 students are studying in Ashram Schools (residential schools) in 2014-15. During my fellowship in Gadchiroli, I have visited several Ashram Schools. Education outcomes are no consideration of schooling in Ashram schools yet. Ashram schools have become places for feeding tribal children only that too in an undignified way; also the quality of food served is not the question to be discussed here. In the last few years itself, there are multiple cases of sexual exploitation of girl students in residential hostels funded by Tribal Department in the surrounding districts. Safety and security of girl students in Ashram school have been a pending issue since long and needs decisive action now.

On the safety of tribal students in these Ashram Schools, a petition had been filed in the Bombay High Court in 2013. A petitioner highlighted deaths of more than a thousand tribal students due to several issues. Despite this, Rajura incident shows that the safety of children particularly girl students has been a grave issue which has escaped serious thinking on the policy framework and received only knee jerk reactions from institutions for the children from vulnerable category despite having statutory and constitutional safeguards.

Residential school education policy has been implemented by the government to provide schooling facility to pursue education in rural areas. Residential education scheme like Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya (KGBV) has been providing residential school education to girl students in rural areas. KGBV is an affirmative action by the Central government to improve a significant gender gap in literacy rate at the block level. Incidents of sexual exploitation as reported in Rajura hostel have a strong negative impact on the objective of promoting girls’ education to reduce the gender gap in literacy. The state agencies seem to have not comprehensively handled the issue of sexual exploitation in residential schools and actions to redress symptoms would not mitigate the inherent problems in the policy.  There is an urgent need for the Central government or the Supreme Court to take cognizance of the safety and security of minor tribal girls studying in residential tribal hostels after Rajura incident and to develop a comprehensive policy to make residential schools safe for the minor girls from vulnerable category.

In the direction of redressing the issue of sexual exploitation of the girl students in residential schools, we could look at the decision taken by the Odisha government. The government has removed male staff members – teaching and non-teaching – from KGBV due to a similar incident of sexual exploitation. The decision was reported to be taken with the consent of the Central government. Even the Orissa High Court endorsed the decision of the government in 2018. The court remarked, “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.” Adopting a similar decision in residential schools funded by the tribal department should be considered. This decision to a large extent removes the threat that the minor girls are otherwise facing daily. Such a policy decision by the state would be a significant right step in ensuring gender justice and promoting the education of vulnerable and voiceless tribal girls staying invisible from the attention of mainstream media.

Santosh Vishwanath Gedam is doctoral student in IIM Ahmedabad.


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