AS a young child growing up in Pakistan, respect for teachers is a thread woven into both culture and mainstream religion. Reaching into memory, I can pull out entire essays about ‘ustaad ka ihteraam’ (respect for teachers), quoting their status as equal to that of parents in Islam, tasked as they are with the responsibility of nurturing guidance.
There is an extraordinary power that the teacher, the keeper of knowledge and wisdom, can wield in the life of a child. It is when that power is free from accountability that it can be truly, terrifyingly dangerous. What is learnt in the classroom and how, both can make or mar the life of a child.
The recent incident involving sexual abuse in a madressah has shaken Pakistani society to its core because of the graphic, viral nature of the record. What should shake us is the fact that it is neither new nor isolated. The harrowing stories of children who cannot look their interviewer in the eye are vastly outnumbered by those that will never be told. The existence of child abuse in spaces designated for learning and protection overturns the very purpose of those institutions — and yet it remains unchecked.
According to the World Health Organisation, ‘child abuse’ or ‘maltreatment’ constitutes “all forms of physical and/or emotional ill-treatment, sexual abuse, neglect or negligent treatment or commercial or other exploitation, resulting in actual or potential harm to the child’s health, survival, development or dignity in the context of a relationship of responsibility, trust or power”. Those last three words — responsibility, trust and power — are key when it comes to the relationship between a teacher and student.
The sanctity of a space of learning must be preserved.
In Pakistan, the time has come to begin to redefine the parameters of that relationship, and to establish clearer boundaries around what is permissible behaviour for an adult in a position of power, where trust can be abused. This should include restrictions around all forms of violence and harm: physical as well as psychological.
There is a huge body of evidence to show the lifelong consequences of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Children who experience physical or sexual violence or psychological abuse are more likely to perpetrate it, and to turn to high-risk behaviours including substance misuse — or in extreme cases, suicide. They could become physically more prone to obesity and heart disease. And if the violence comes from peers or teachers in an educational setting, then they are more likely to turn away from learning itself.
The sanctity of a space of learning is something that needs to be preserved by all who enter it — students, teachers, principals, administrators. In much of the world, it is now mandatory to have a set of policies around child protection or safeguarding in educational institutions. This does not only involve a theoretical commitment to safety, but a clearly defined code of conduct laying out what is not acceptable.
Most importantly, it should involve real mechanisms for reporting as well as redress. No child would be willing to come forward unless confidentiality is guaranteed, and unless there will be real consequences. If the mechanisms for redress within an institution are compromised by corrupt or complicit administrators, then there have to be external possibilities for reporting — and children need to know they exist.
Some positive steps have already been taken in the form of helplines set up for women and children by the Ministry of Human Rights. However, for these to be accessed by children they need to know that they are available for them, and for what kind of complaint. They need to know that they have the tools to break the culture of silence, which is a culture of impunity.
In the UK, there is statutory guidance for schools and colleges on safeguarding children. In fact, it is one of the criteria used when inspecting schools and educational settings. While the diversity of educational spaces and lack of regulation of institutions like madressahs pose a challenge for Pakistan, it is in the interests of all stakeholders — government, schools, clerics — to put in place minimal standards for child safeguarding. This is what needs to be highlighted as the message of the moment — to combat reputational risk, what we need is not less transparency but more.
We must find allies among the ulema, and the whole spectrum of stakeholders involved in a process such as formulating the Single National Curriculum. If certain standards are being created for education right now, the protection of children in spaces of learning should be aligned with that process — even incorporated into pre- and in-service training.
We need to be able to respect our teachers. We need to choose them well, train them well, and hold them to account — lest the pedestal should crumble.
The writer is founder of Cities for Children, a non-profit that focuses on street-connected children.
Published in Dawn, June 27th, 2021