‘No monitoring mechanism at ashramshalas’

Four more people have been arrested following the suspension of all the teaching and non-teaching employees of Nimbaji Kokre ashramshala in Buldhana district, for their alleged involvement in the rape of minor tribal girls of the school.

Chairperson of Maharashtra State Commission for Women, Vijaya Rahatkar spoke with Chitra Sawant on the importance of having proper monitoring system in place to keep a check on such incidents and the need to run these ashramshalas as pure social activity. Excerpts from the interview:

What are the mechanism to keep check on such unfortunate incidents from occurring in ashramshalas?

Though we have proper policy in place for functioning of ashramshalas but they don’t have a monitoring mechanism in place, there have been reports of mismanagement in ashramshalas. The superintendent or warden appointed to take care of the children is supposed to reside permanently at the ashramshala and take responsibility for their safety. Though presence of a female warden in ashramshalas is mandatory but most such schools don’t adhere to this norm. Education is key to development, and educating the girl child is very important in the context of overall tribal development of the State. Hostel should strictly follow certain rules like denying access to men to girls’ residential areas without clear permission and purpose, and sending girls outside the hostel premises unaccompanied. Ashram schools should have the academic rigour and focus on transformation.

What special provisions are there in law to give justice to such victims?

The Government has enacted the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, (POCSO) as a special law to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation. The POCSO Act was formulated in order to effectively address sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children. The act is gender-neutral and defines a child as any person below the age of eighteen years. The act prescribes stringent punishment graded as per the gravity of the offence, with a maximum term of rigorous imprisonment for life, and fine.

What kind of role does the education department play in the overall development of tribal girls?

There should be a proper system to monitor quality of education. There should be proper communication between the Tribal Welfare Department, which runs ashramshalas, Women and Child development department and the Education Department. There should be coordination between the schools and the bureaucracy. The department has to look in to the dropout rates among tribal children in the state.

What steps are needed to check such incidents from happening in future?

We are going on a tour across the state for inspection of the ashramshalas. Apart from inspection we are going to interact with children in these institutions to make them aware of child abuses so that they become vigilant and alert. All ashramshalas should be surveyed regularly. Students should be interviewed about their experience at the school. There should be check-ups to look into the status of personal hygiene among these school children, ensure medical aid, electricity, toilets, water facility, other necessary infrastructure and permanent teachers are made available. It is crucial to impart formal training of teachers regarding health education, first aid and treatment of minor ailments. It should have a guarded toilet and bathing space. Girls should feel ease with the daily routine and enjoy their stay in ashramshalas.

Do you think Ashram schools are business for politicians and their kin, as there have been reports that these schools show inflated enrolment figures to get funds from the government?
Running an ashramshala should be a pure social activity. It is unfortunate on the part of such ashramshala that this kind of manipulation in attendance is taking place. The operating norms should be closely monitored by concerned officers every now and then so as to avoid inflated enrolment figures and prevent dropouts as well.