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Sexual abuse charges rock top disability institute, raises questions about safety mechanisms in place

September 7, 2018

That girls and women with disabilities are at a far higher risk of sexual violence in India is something that no one can doubt. There is data to support this, and of late there have been a number of incidents from across India that underline the need to address this in an urgent manner.

From metros like Chennai and Mumbai, to small towns like Muzzafarpur and Bhopal, acts of sexual violence against girls, boys and women have been reported, both inside homes and institutions.

The most recent is from the National Institute of the Visually Handicapped (NIVH) in Dehradun. This is the second reported abuse from NIVH. The first was just a few months ago when some boys from the institute complained of sexual harassment by a music teacher over a period of years.

In the most recent instance, girls have alleged that they were subject to groping and vulgar remarks by a teacher.

The director of the institute has been transferred and many are asking how as a visually impaired person, she failed to protect the students under her charge.

However the question we really need to ask is - are the policies put in place to protect children from such abuse really working? There is a child protection policy set out under the POCSO Act, but is this being followed at all?

Disability rights experts say it is high time these questions are addressed by policymakers and heads of institutions.

I think the lesson here is that if we put policies in place then we have to make sure people follow the system. The policies are brilliant but need to be followed seriously. The issue is that they are all on paper, written in a language most people do not understand, so they are just not working. - Jo McGowan Chopra, Executive Director, Latika Roy Foundation

There is also a larger and more fundamental failure that is evident and that lies in how parents and educators communicate with children and young people with disabilities, points out Chopra.

"We have to understand how to present the information about boundaries, safe-unsafe touch to someone with a disability, especially with a cognitive disability. There is a larger problem in that disabled people are treated as children and not given empowerment with anything. When I talk to families about protecting their children from sexual abuse, I talk to them about developing an agency, about giving children a chance to make their own decisions starting from the very beginning. Experience in deciding small things when they are little helps them make big decisions when they are older."

Dr Aishwarya Rao, who runs a shelter for disabled women in Chennai, says she sees a larger discomfort among parents in talking about such matters.

I know families and even activists with disabled children who will hold rallies for causes but will not talk about sexuality with their kids. There is extreme tokenism when it comes to this issue. - Dr Aishwarya Rao, Managing Director, Impact Zone Idealabs

Apart from systemic lapses like the lack of monitoring mechanisms and specific data relating to attacks on disabled girls and women, there is a need to look at changing attitudes as well. One that equips and enables children with disabilities with a strong sense of self, of individuality.

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