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This article seeks to present an overview and provide tips of sexual harassment in schools in the US, in India and look at some measures taken around the world. It also provide resources for further reading.

I have 2 nieces. Since they were born, the male domestic help has been replaced by ladies who come to help out.

I notice how sensitive my sister-in-law is about the events the girls will attend, about who will accompany her and how late they will be allowed to stay out.

In most schools I’ve worked in, there are rules to make sure that no girls are sent on errands alone and if there is training for the girls-team after school, a senior lady teacher is always at hand.

How real a problem is sexual harassment? Does it affect only girls? What about the boys?

This post is not intended to be an opinion or experience piece. Thankfully, outside of reading about the subject, I have no direct experience of this phenomenon. This post will be used to point you to resources that you may want to look up if this subject interests you.

A. How real a problem is sexual harassment at schools?

Lets start by defining sexual harassment. It includes intercourse but goes much beyond it to include: Sexual jokes and cartoons, slurs, repeated meeting requests, invitations for intercourse, sexual remarks, insults or innuendoes, attempted kissing, unequal facilities (lesser or no restrooms for girls or shared restrooms), nude or suggestive pictures and posters. Another important consideration is: Would the Behavior be different if the victim were the opposite sex?

I pulled up Google News on my browser. I search for “sex offences in schools”. I got 4 separate news items in the last 20 hours. When I broadened my search to include the wider definition discussed above, the results jumped to over 20 unique results.

Two days ago a leading daily in India screamed about a boy being sodomised for 3 months by 3 male teachers.

Lets look at some data from the US. This information is primarily from Hostile Hallways (published by the AAUW) and Sexual Harassment in Schools (published by the NASBE)

  • Students most often experience sexual harassment for the first time during sixth or ninth grade … but some instances ccur before third grade. — Hostile Hallways (AAUW Educational Foundation, 2001)

  • 91.5 percent of LGBT students report hearing homophobic remarks frequentlyor often at school—but 82.9 percent report that faculty never or only sometimes intervene when they overhear such remarks being made. — J.G. Kosciw, The GLSEN 2003 National School Climate

  • Boys are nearly as likely as girls to have experienced some form of sexual harassment: 76% of boys said that they have experienced sexual harassment, compared with 85% of girls. However, girls were more likely than boys to report that they had “often” experienced sexual harassment at school (31% for girls, compared with 18% for boys), and girls were more likely to report that sexual harassment had a negative impact on their education.

  • Nearly one-third (32%) of all students who have been harassed first experienced harassment before 7th grade.

  • Perpetrators of sexual harassment in schools are far more likely to be fellow students than adults. Of students who were harassed in school, 18% said they had been targeted by a school employee, while 79% said they had been harassed by a current or former student at school.

  • Students who have been sexually harassed are most likely to talk to friends about such incidents (63% report that they have done so). Roughly a quarter have talked to parents or other family members and another quarter have told no one. Only 7% said that they had reported being sexually harassed to a teacher.

– All 4 statistics above from the NASBE report

What is the scenario in India?

I could not find hard data on schools and sexual harassment. There are cases reported in the press (read one here) and the frequent report about Goa as a pedophile paradise but nothing concrete in terms of data about schools and sex offences has come to my notice.

 

  • Almost one in two children is sexually abused.
  • 70% of the children never reported the abuse.
  • Compared to those in the age group 13-18, younger children (5-12 years) faced higher levels of abuse (not that more children in the lower age group are affected, but that an affected person in that age group would have a greater order of atrocities committed against him)

  • The highest percentage of abusers were known people — friends and family

 

 

(graphic from Indian Express Article)

Given this situation what is disturbing is the debate around what is possibly the most important step in the control of sexual offences is often debated in India- Sex Education. Lets look into that here.

 

There is a strange situation in India: kids are learning about sex earlier and earlier- a survey in Mumbai showed that the age of access to pornography has dropped from 16 to 12 for boys and I posit that the same is true of connected communities over the world. At the same time schools and the government are becoming increasingly prudish about sex education.

Some months ago Madhya Pradesh banned sex education in schools (aimed at classes 9 and higher) because “illustrations in an the texts intended for teachers to instruct from were found obscene!” The obscenity in question? Diagrams of human bodies.

Other news reports indicate that: Maharastra has banned sex education (Mumbai, the city noted earlier is its capital!- BBC News, April 2007), so has Karnataka, there are appeals by the BJP for it to be banned in Delhi as it this could lead to schools becoming sex spots and compel a large number of girl students to drop out (Yahoo news , July 2007) and only ten days ago our honourable ex-Chief Minister of Bihar and sitting Minister for Railways said that Sex Education was a blot on Indian Culture and should be banned (DNA, July 2007)

It seems that most of the religious, social and political voices who discourage sex education have misunderstood it. Sex education is not about teaching kids “how to do it” it is about making them aware of themselves and their sexuality so they are more prudent, discretionary and alert in their sexual behaviour to response to that of others. If implemented thoughtfully, sex education can control or avoid sexual offences, increase hygiene, check unwanted pregnancies and HIV and clear many a confused adolescent mind.

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B. What can be done? Sexual harassment can be a torment. Apart from the huge emotional stress it results in, Targets of bullying and harassment experience anxiety, distress, confusion, loss of self-esteem, depression, and loss of concentration on schoolwork. Severe consequences may include psychosomatic symptoms, avoiding school, and committing suicide.

It is clear from the data presented that both genders are susceptible and that smaller children are more susceptible to sexual assault involving intercourse while older chidlren may be more at risk for harassment including abuse while the numbers of sexual assult may dip.

It exists in both, rural area and in cities and shockingly, your near ones may the one you need to be most careful of.

The data presented effectively kills any misplaces notion of “this happens only in poor families” or this happens only when “parents don’t care.” It can happen anywhere, anytime but thankfully there are several small initiatives that can go a long way:

1. Establish and Follow a Sexual Harassment Policy: A good policy should give a clear message that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. There may be be two policies, one for students and one for staff. In any event, the policy statement should be comprehensive enough to include student-to-student, student-to-staff, staff-to-student, staff-to-staff, and supervisors-to-staff harassment. It should define sexual harassment and give some examples of unacceptable behavior. It should have a clearly explained complaint procedure and make it easy for the victim to contact responsible authorities. The policy should be posted in a conspicuous place in theschool, included in the student handbook, and an effort should be made to ensure that all concerned students, staff, and parents — are aware of and understand the policy.

Survey a sample of your students periodically to find out attitudes about sex, information about harassment at school, school culture and information about school policies etc.

 

2. Start Young: Most people balk at sex education for little kids. This is because the labelling of the term is incorrect. I would call it self-awareness, where the child is made understand his body and what kind of touch is clearly inappropriate. For example, being touched anywhere under your clothes is wrong. If it happens, what should be done? This is the kind of simple information that can be given to kids.

Sex Education then should be introduced systematically. In addition, students should be encouraged to speak to parents and counselors (as opposed to peers) in the event of an incident taking place.

It is important to communicate that anyone engaging in improper touching or fondling should be discussed with the parent. In schools, especially in hierarchical societies, in India actions of family elders and teachers are not questioned openly as children are told to ‘obey elders’ and going against any of their actions is usually poor manners.

 

3. Start Conversations: Conversations can be started by talking to parents- making them aware of model parental behaviour (not laughing at lewd jokes, for example), encouraging them to discussing information about peers and schooldays with children etc. Information should be made available to students clearly and explicitly through special workshops and through integrated curricular elements.

In school and in homes, encourage open discussion. Repression will lead to ‘experiments’ with the body, urge to access (unsafe) materials or adults for enlightenment on this subject.

 

4. Run background checks: This is obvious, yet many of us, in our hurry to recruit candidates skip this step as it takes time. Research has shown that most crimes or cases of harassment at school take place through older students or employees. While one can’t predict how recruits will turn out, one can surely restrict past offenders from working on campuses that we serve.

 

5. Control access through online pornography: This one is extreme- yet is it is a rising data point in sexual harassment scorecards worldwide. Research has established that on-line Pornography plays an accessory role in negative social issues such as child abuse, violence against women, rape, inequality, relationship and family breakdown, youth crime, promiscuity and sexually transmitted diseases. Access should be controlled until children have been talked to about the birds and the bees and is easily made possible by browser settings and specialised software like NetNanny. Online pornography can easily lead to access to other forms of sexual content on the net, including chat and video- putting a child at risk.

But these tips are just me. To know what the experts think about this, do read some interesting (some with ready-to-use tips) here.

 

Further Reading

1. Hostile Hallways: The seminal work from the AAUW. Read their report here and access a complete guide for students, schools & parents here. It has sample surveys, questionnaires and guidelines for policy-setting and following.

2. STOP Project: Chad Harms at the Iowa State University has done some interesting work on identifying sexual predators on the internet. His articles delineate strategies they employ and what parents/schools/counselors need to be aware of. Access his useful website Stop and Help, here.

3. New York Times: On How you can Distinguish a Budding Pedophile from a Kid with Boundary Problems. An involved, but very readable article.

4. Global Measures against sex offenders and their employment in school: A BBC report on what the UK, US and France have done in this regard. Also read about the Vishaka guidelines, the lame effort by the judiciary in India to control sexual harassment here.

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This post is both, personal and professional. After five short paragraphs, there are thoughts on how to talk to children about death.

My apologies to readers who have visited over the last week expecting to find new posts. I have not found the time to write as I was dealing with an intense personal loss- that of my Grandmother. She was 89. She had a zest for life, was loved by all and for me, was my first experience with an adult figure (I have the notion that for children their parents are not ‘adults’ – they are just Mom and Dad).

Under Hindu custom, the body of the dead is bathed and clothed and then burned to ashes in a holy funeral pyre. The ashes are then taken to the Ganges (considered the bestower of wisdom and the purgator of sin) and offered to the river. After this, it is believed, the soul leaves for its Eternal Home.

We didn’t have a close relationship, Dadi and I. She stayed in Assam, four hours away by an airliner. I saw her for a few days once every two years, maybe three. Yet, as I, with my uncles and cousins bathed her body before the Final Journey, I was choked with emotion. I missed her.

Thoughts about Death and Dying flooded my mind. I imagined my parents on their dying day. I imagined them breathing their last and me setting fire to their pyres. I imagined myself being laid down similarly a few decades from now by yet unborn children and grandchildren.

I thought about my nieces. How would they react to Dadi‘s death? Their parents had decided not to bring them to the funeral so I couldn’t speak to them one-on-one, but if I could, what would I say? What is the best way to speak to children about Death? Below I have reproduced some thoughts (in random order) that I had on the day of Dadi‘s death:

1. There are different ways to talk to children at different ages. But one thing is probably a constant. As with almost all things, being upfront and honest about what has happened is often the best way to deal with Death. Sure, we must break the news gently, but the news must be expressed clearly instead of being clouded with ambiguous terms like “long trip”, “far away”, “in the sky” etc. Protecting our children by not sharing the facts with them is certainly not the right thing to do, because this leaves them confused, bottled up and unable to express themselves.

2. Children know about Death before we think they do. They may not comprehend the finality of death- at younger ages most children think that this process must surely be magically reversible or that that the departed is around, maybe not at home, but just around the corner somewhere or on some kind of holiday and will be back soon – but know that death as a concept exists. They see death on TV, hear of it at school (friend’s relatives, pets etc), maybe even act it out in their own role-plays.

If the death is anticipated, it is probably better to speak to the child before it happens. This will allow the child to share & express love and emotion towards the departed and make the parting easier.

3. Allow the child to tell you what she thinks happens to people when they grow old. Where has Dadi gone? Listen carefully and clarify any misconceptions children may have. With younger children parables, analogies, metaphors would probably work best. Provide short, clear answers. Do not overwhelm them. Check on what they have understood. This can be critical as often understanding may be muddled.

4. Talk to the child when you and she both are comfortable.

5. Hearing about death for the first time, children may become insecure about their parents and wonder if they too will die soon. Assure them that their parents are not going anywhere soon. When I was 6, my parent’s attended the funeral of a distant relative. A few days later, Mom was prescribed spectacles for the first time. When I saw her with the glasses perched on her nose, I started crying for I thought that meant that she too would die soon.

6. Assure the child that She has nothing to do with the death– it was not her fault. Likewise, assure her that the person in question did not die because she was a bad person. Children have the proclivity to equate death with being a ‘bad person’.

7. Express your own feelings about the death, maybe even relate your feelings when you were a child and a close relative died.

8. Some children may not react as we expect. They may displace their feelings through anger, loss of appetite, attention deficiency. They may not talk and express themselves openly but may provide signals about their feelings through drawings, role-plays etc. It will help to be watchful and patient, talking to the child as necessary.

9. Make sure that the school and parents talk. You don’t want the teacher at school and the parents at home to give the child confusing, or worse, contradictory signals about Death and Dying.

Lastly, I’d like to reemphasise honestly and directness. I know of a family where a child was told his Grandfather (who he shared a room with) had “gone to sleep forever”. The child was frightened of nightfall, was afraid to go to sleep and started wetting his bed at the age of 9. It would have been best if he had been explained this in a sensible and clear manner.

I have limited experience of dealing with children who’ve lost a relative; this list is certainly not complete. This topic is important to me, I’d appreciate your comments and suggestions about how best it can be handled.

Rest in Peace, Dadi.

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The Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors have released another e-book for counsellors, psychologists and mental health professionals that focuses on illustrative case examples of counselling in specific settings. Consisting of 20 professionally written case studies covering counselling microskills, counselling therapies, family counselling, grief and loss counselling and stress issues in counselling, the e-book should provide some interesting content for peer discussion. The e-book is free and can be downloaded here.

The Case Book (I read 2 cases) is fairly well written in terms of its pointers on real application – so if you are a guidance counsellor, head over there and get yourself a copy. I recommend it.

(thanks to Dr. Gareth Furber over at PsychSplash for the link)

 

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