Making schools a safer place

GERD ALTMANN/PIXABAY

G25 Malaysia commends Puteri Nuraaina Balqis for creating the Save The Schools MY platform, where victims can share their stories of sexual abuse, harassment and assault (most, if not all, are criminal acts) in schools.

The (almost) 700 stories that the platform has received from both male and female victims of all races (an overwhelming majority are Malays) are proof that this issue is much larger than some would like to believe.

Angered by the verbal abuse and threats on social media directed at the brave 17-year-old Ain Husniza and the lack of support given by Ain’s principal and teachers after calling out a male teacher for joking about rape, Puteri created this platform to expose the disturbing reality that our children have been suffering in silence in schools all this while.

Of the 700 stories, only 25 were read out during the Kisah #MakeSchoolASaferPlace virtual forum organised by Projek Wawasan Rakyat on 18 May 2021. But the 25 were more than enough to make anyone feel sick to hear the disturbing and heart-rending experiences the children concerned had gone through. The prevalence, nature and extent of the crimes perpetrated are beyond belief for any average normal Malaysian.

One 12-year-old girl told of a male substitute teacher during a Penilaian Perkara Asas Fardhu Ain (Pafa) class who showed porn videos and molested two of her friends, while her other classmates were reading iqra. Afraid that she would be next, she ran to the toilet and cried until the class ended. She was afraid something would happen to her if she told anyone about it. Today, she says she didn’t know her rights then.

A male pupil told of a silat teacher who, unbeknownst to him, was well known amongst the boys in his school for groping and fondling boys’ testicles. He found out one day when the teacher (who was driving some of them) asked this pupil to move to the front passenger seat next to him. The other boys gave him warning looks but he didn’t understand why until the teacher grabbed his testicles and squeezed them. When he screamed the teacher smiled and only later let go. The pupil said that at the time he didn’t know anything, that he thought it was normal and wasn’t brave enough to do anything about it.

Another girl was stalked, attacked and held at knifepoint by a male classmate. She struggled and managed to scream for help. When the classmate tried to run away, he was stopped by the guards and brought to the police station. At the police station, the cops tried to get the victim to brush off what had happened by saying that not much harm had been done except that he had pushed her and nothing happened with the knife. The boy was set free and was back at school the next day. She not only had to face her attacker at school but also ridicule from her fellow students, both male and female, who spread rumours about her and blamed her for the attack because she did not wear the headscarf.

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Other stories told of jokes about rape, verbal abuse, and physical abuse at the expense of students by fellow students, teachers and other staff working on school grounds. Every story was unique.

But one thing became resoundingly clear: most of the victims didn’t know what to do or were too afraid to speak out. And for those who did speak out, most of them did not get the support they needed. The trauma they experienced lives with them to this day. Victims suffer long-term effects on their mental and psychological health, as well as on their social wellbeing (such as their perception of sex and marriage, and relations with their husbands).

What is surprising is the number of cases where the perpetrator is an ustaz or ustazah. This, sadly, is the hypocrisy of some of the followers (even teachers) of the Islamic religion. It is not just the sexual abuses, which are clearly against the teachings of Islam. There are also other forms of abuses that are perpetrated in the name of religion, such as the physical checks done on girls who claim to be having their monthly periods and are therefore exempted from religious rituals such as praying and fasting during Ramadan.

This menstruation check (“period-shaming”), purportedly carried out with religious intent, is both a crime (outraging of modesty) and a violation of the human rights of bodily autonomy and bodily integrity. A former prefect attests that she, a non-Muslim, was instructed to check on the non-fasting Muslim girls during Ramadan to make sure they were indeed having their period. She reported that they were telling the truth without actually physically checking them. In worse cases, girls having their period would even pretend to pray just to avoid having to go through the humiliation of a period check.

Mufti Wan Salim Wan Mohd Noor of Penang spoke out against this practice of menstruation checks, saying that “Islam doesn’t allow for children to be treated in a way that embarrasses them, such as inspecting their private parts to check whether or not they are menstruating”. And “Islam strongly forbids its followers to see the private parts of others, even if it is to prevent female students from skipping prayers”.

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We know of cases where students were ridiculed and traumatised by their religious teachers just for not wearing the headscarf. Being threatened with hell is common for non-hijabi students. In one case an ustazah told her student that she (the ustazah) prayed for the student to meet with an accident after she left the school premises and that she would go to hell for not covering her aurat. The same ustazah told this girl that she would not be included in the mass prayer to be performed for the students to pass their SPM exams, because she was sure the girl with her head uncovered had already been damned to go to hell. Here we see a religious teacher pouring malice on a young girl. She showed no mercy and kindness, which are required in Islam.

How have we allowed abusers, perverts and paedophiles to infiltrate our education system to this extent? These are not isolated cases. The principals and teachers who chose to remain silent, who chose not take action and who chose not to support the victims are accomplices to the crimes. Sexual abuse, verbal threats, physical harassment are crimes. These accomplices are the enablers who, through their inaction, have made these crimes the norms in schools.

We see the trickle-down effect of this in the never-changing rape culture in our society – a society that brushes off rape threats, jokes about rape, blames the victim and lets off the perpetrator. We see Muslims in Malaysia blaming women and girls for the clothes they wear instead of blaming the perpetrator who actually committed the crime. What this teaches our children is that we can be excused for following our impulses no matter how disgusting the impulses are just because the victim’s head is not covered.

It is little wonder that young boys, as young as seven and 12 years old, are accused of raping even younger girls – for, when we hear that teachers, and even their peers, are the ones encouraging rape by making light of it and putting the blame on the victim and not on the perpetrator, can we be surprised?

It must also be made clear that retaining the good name of any school is never a good excuse to sweep such horrifying trespasses against children under the rug. The responsibilities and accountability of principals, teachers, ustazs and ustazahs to protect a student from such abhorrent abuses is by far greater than their responsibility to protect the good name of a school. Perhaps they are afraid of the repercussions to their career.

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We, G25, would like to impress upon them that if they do the right thing and take action upon knowledge of such violations, it would give them immense credibility and respect, for protecting the rights and safety of a child.

We urgently need preventive measures to end these despicable misdeeds. We call on the Ministry of Education and its Minister, Radzi Jidin, to take this matter seriously. To delay and to deny these injustices for the sake of religion, societal norms or the name of a school, will not only degrade the teaching profession but also condone the normalisation of rape culture, paedophilia and child abuse. This cannot go unchecked.

G25 Malaysia calls on Radzi and the Ministry of Education to be vocal and transparent in its stance against child abuse and exploitation, both sexual and non-sexual. While we see effort being made when it comes to bullying, with anti-bullying campaigns, little is being done when it comes to sexual abuse.

G25 acknowledges that fulfilling this task is not an easy feat, but it is undeniably necessary. There are several civil society organisations in our community who have a wealth of knowledge on these issues and who will be more than willing to support and work with the ministry to find strategies and solutions.

The ministry must have a system for monitoring teachers and caretakers. Proper monitoring and standard operating procedures must be in place to ensure cases of sexual abuse and trespasses against children are not overlooked, and that perpetrators do not go unpunished. We also recommend that they be given awareness and warning that any form of sexual abuse and harassment of children is as not only unacceptable behaviour but also a serious crime punishable by law.

The National Union of the Teaching Profession too needs to take some responsibility. A necessary first step is to not to deny that these cases happen and to ensure that they are taken seriously. The legal repercussions of such crimes must be made clear to all teachers.

We in G25 support Ain in her #MakeSchoolsASaferPlace movement, Puteri for her Save The School MY platform, and all the civil service organisations working to protect our children in schools, including the organisations in the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality, who have been working extensively to expedite the tabling of a sexual harassment bill.

We also support the National Council of Women’s Organisations, Malaysia, who recently came out with their memorandum on sexual harassment with recommendations, addressed to Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and calling on him to lead the action against sexual harassment in schools. – G25 Malaysia

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