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  • Last Update : 12:29 am

An open secret

  • Published at 10:56 pm August 2nd, 2019
Photo: BIGSTOCK
Photo: BIGSTOCK

How can we protect children from sexual predators?

Many cases of sexual abuse by mentors and tutors in an educational system have forced us to re-think how we safeguard our pupils from sexual predators at our educational institutions. 

Although sexual abuse has become endemic in educational institutions in Bangladesh, according to a report by the Bangladesh Children’s Rights Forum (BSAF), from January to March this year, about 15 students were raped and four were sexually harassed by either their teachers or other staff members. The problem of rape has become particularly acute in madrasas. 

Evidence, such as the murder of Nusrat by the alleged sexual predator Siraj Ud-Daullah, followed by the most recent cases of the rape of at least 12 madrasa students by Md Al Amin, and the rape of no less than four students by Mustafizul Rahman, signifies the scale of the sexual abuse in madrasas alone. 

Interestingly, the abusers held top-most positions, such as principal of the madrasas. In addition, I have studied various print and social media sources between August 29, 2018 and March 5 this year, and found at least seven cases in which children were victims of sexual abuse. 

Analysis of such cases of sexual abuse in madrasas, especially in Qawmi madrasas, shows that acts of sexual coercion are not committed only by teachers, but also by senior students and classmates. 

This might be because most madrasas have hostels and, interestingly, there is often no age segregation. Sexual violence, including the rape of males, involved both adolescent and adult offenders. 

By looking at the scale of the sexual abuse, it is clear that the government has failed to secure safe madrasa educational institutions.

In the context of Bangladesh, it seems sexual coercion by tutors and seniors is a long-standing open secret, which everyone, including parents and guardians, administrators, civil society, and policy-makers, try to suppress out of political correctness. 

People close to sexual predators and victims may know about this behaviour, but are either too frightened to discuss it, as sex is considered a sensitive topic, or become used to the culture of sexual abuse. Thus, sexual predators can take shelter under the roofs of religious institutions, such as madrasas and mosques, hiding under the veil of religion and belief. 

It is evident that sexual predators in madrasas mostly target children and adolescents. In an article titled, “Pessimism about paedophilia,” published in 2010, Harvard Medical School revealed that “paedophilia is a sexual orientation and unlikely to change. Treatment aims to enable someone to resist acting on his sexual urges.”

In their article titled “Rethinking responsibility in offenders with acquired paedophilia: Punishment or treatment,” published in 2015, Prof Frederic Gilbert and Prof Farah Focquaert stressed that “to adequately prevent further child abuse, early distinction between offenders with acquired paedophilia and offenders with developmental paedophilia is important.”

The researchers further added, without intensive medical treatment and follow up, offenders often pose threats to children and society at large after the end of an exclusive retributive punishment. 

As there is no cure for paedophilia, we must focus on protecting our children. Therefore, protecting our educational institutions and pupils from sexual predators is vital and requires policy interventions, awareness among parents, guardians and pupils and stakeholder involvement, as well as cooperation among different government and non-government agencies. 

It is high time for the government to act against sexual predators in our educational institutions. First, it should formulate laws protecting children from maltreatment, preventing damage to children’s health and development, ensuring that children can grow up in circumstances consistent with the provisions of safe and effective care, taking action to enable all children to have the best outcomes, and setting a provision of severe punishment for paedophilia. 

Second, as part of the prime intention of the government to forge a digital Bangladesh, the government should create a database system to check criminal records, including for paedophilia. The database system could be similar to a criminal record system called the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS), which is currently used by the UK government. This could help employers, including educational institutions, to make safer recruitment decisions and protect their institutions from paedophiles. 

Third, the government should establish rules and regulations to safeguard students living in hostels within educational institutions. Students should be separated by age groups, ie, children should not be living with adults. 

Finally, new government regulations should be introduced to compel educational institutions to install CCTV cameras, and the government authorities should always have access to the CCTV footage. 

Educational authorities could introduce thorough background checks in the recruitment process, along with a generic teacher’s recruitment framework to ensure safe and talented recruits. They should adopt a policy of zero tolerance to sexual abuse and seek help from law enforcement authorities. 

NGOs can provide dedicated telephone numbers for victim support for pupils suffering the effects of sexual abuse in silence. In addition, voluntary safeguarding training to parents, guardians, teachers, and care-givers could help protect pupils. Besides, they can set up a health service provision for diagnosis, medical treatment, and follow-up required by the people with paedophilic mental health disorders. 

Stakeholders, such as parents and guardians of pupils, donors, trustees, committee members, local government representatives, business organisations, GOs, NGOs and others, could apply pressure to ensure transparent recruitment processes and strengthen monitoring systems. 

Analysis of several cases of sexual abuse in educational institutions have found that sexual predators often lure victims away before committing their heinous crimes. Therefore, parents have a duty to safeguard their children by mentoring them about associating with others; in particular, children should be taught not to accept gifts from strangers, friends, tutors, or relatives when parents are absent. 

Children should be monitored by their parents for any changes in their behaviour or marks on their bodies, in order to ensure any signs of molestation or abuse are picked up. 

The above interventions are essential to help pupils who are suffering in silence, and to ensure educational institutions are safe and secure environments. The legal and regulatory interventions mentioned would establish a strong monitoring system to safeguard pupils from sexual predators.

Educational institutions will then be able to devote themselves to establishing the required human resources for Bangladesh’s development in the near future. 

Mohammad Omar Faruk is a human resource consultant based in London.