The #MeToo movement has exploded in Chennai, led by schoolgirls and young women who were sexually harassed by male teachers in high schools. It all started last week, when a model, an alumnus of a prestigious city school, shared appalling Instagram stories and screenshots of conversations between a Commerce teacher of the school and girl students. The teacher would comment on their appearance, send them pornography links, touch them inappropriately, ask them out for movies and turn up for online classes with just a towel wrapped around his waist.

Following these allegations on the social media, over 1,000 alumni of the school demanded his immediate suspension. He has now been arrested under the POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) Act. This was just the tip of the iceberg. Soon complaints involving male teachers from five schools poured in. It was the same – pinching thighs, slapping bottoms, encircling waists, and lewd gestures.

The saddest part is, as pointed out by the alumni association of the school where it all started, the sexual predator was apparently dismissed from another school for forcing girl students to sit on his lap and give him “friendly kisses”, whatever that means. Had the offender been handed over to the police right then, hundreds of other girls would have escaped the humiliation and trauma of sexual molestation by a teacher.

A well-known singer once again brought up the issue of sexual harassment by a veteran lyricist, and with more women coming forward with similar charges, the poet has returned a literary award given to him.

Skewed social conditioning

Unfortunately, the upbringing of our daughters and their social conditioning is so skewed that a victim of sexual innuendos or violation first blames herself, thinking, ‘I must be doing something wrong’. Present and formers students of all the five schools have disclosed that the few complaints they made were stonewalled by the managements. The schools now saying that they all had prevention of sexual harassment committees in place is making a mockery of the trauma generations of girls must have suffered in silence. Who is going to compensate these young minds for the psychological scarring?

Alumni from other schools have also come out with similar shocking allegations, and all the schools seem to have ignored complaints against these sexual predators. With the offending teachers threatening to fail the students if they dared to complain, as well as body shaming them, their courage in coming out deserves a salute.

The role of many a parent on this issue is spineless and shameful. There are reports of several mothers asking the girls to “keep quiet”, and somehow complete their education. Surely, this is connected to the herculean efforts required to get a child into a “good, reputable school”. And that is such a shame. Small wonder that the single most popular word the young choose for the older generation is ‘hypocrite”.

Also to blame are our outdated concepts on the guru-sishya relationship; the guru is always right, to be respected, and so on. So, whether it’s a commerce teacher, a sports coach or a martial arts teacher, these predators have been getting away because they are, after all, “ gurus ”.

Make no mistake about it; this is only the tip of the iceberg. Girls from affluent classes going to reputed schools in a city like Chennai have found a voice, thanks in part to the anonymity offered by social media platforms. What about small towns, and worse, rural areas? Who knows that such sexual harassment is not going on unabated, unreported.

Loaded against girl child

The injustice of it all is infuriating. We already have an education system that is loaded heavily against the girl child. In lower middle class or poorer families, where financial resources are limited, the son goes to a private school, and the daughter is put in a government school. Provided she is not required at home to cook, clean and look after her younger siblings.

At a virtual conference I attended in March 2021, quoting UNESCO figures, Unicef’s India head, Yasmin Ali Haque, spelt out the terrifying prospect of a post-Covid world where “11 million girls may not return to school this year due to the unprecedented disruption in schooling. And median data indicates that a girl spends only 4.4 years in school in India compared to seven years for boys.” Significantly, she had added, “the education of girls goes beyond getting them into schools. It is also about creating an environment where girls learn and feel safe.” If girls in Chennai’s premier schools are not safe, what hope do their less fortunate sisters in remote, rural India have?