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Since 1st March, 1999
 
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Crying out for help

Aparna Mishra, a class VII student of a Salkia school left home to sit for her final exams in June this year. Little did she or her parents know that Aparna would never come back again. A teenager full of life, she was looking ahead to the holidays after exams. But that was not to be. Aparna was hauled up at her school by her teacher for cheating in exams. Though she pleaded not guilty, her answer sheet was snatched away and she was held by the ear. Barred from taking the paper, Aparna did the unthinkable. She went up to the roof of the four-storey school building and jumped off. The teacher, Brijesh Prasad, who is also the vice-principal of the school, was arrested after Aparna’s family members filed a complaint against him at Golabari police station.

(Top) Aparna Mishra who jumped off her school roof (below) after her teacher accused her of cheating in exams. Pictures by Gopal Senapati

Aparna’s case caused a furore in Howrah. Guardians and local people staged protests and the police were forced to arrest the teacher on grounds of abetment to suicide. Aparna is not the only one who is a victim of child abuse in Howrah. Parents and teachers, knowingly and unknowingly, often put unnecessary pressure on children that cause more harm than good. There are parents who are clueless about how to deal with naughty or disobedient wards. They often take recourse to violence, believing in the ancient “spare the rod and spoil the child” dictum.

Krishnendu Chowdhury, for example, a resident of Bally Durgapur, didn’t know how he would deal with his seven-year-old daughter, Kausiki, a lower nursery student of an English medium school in Belur. “She refused to study and always complained. Her performance gradually deteriorated in school. Sometimes we lost our temper and beat her up. But this did more harm than good,” said Krishnendu, an employee of Sarba Siksha Abhijan. His wife, Kakali, is an employee of South-Eastern Railway. Both have little time to spare for their only child. The family tried to find an NGO working on child psychology but found none in the area.

Last year, while visiting the Howrah Book Fair, Krishnendu came across a stall by an NGO working on children. “The volunteers at the stall gave me some tips on how to handle the child and asked me and my wife to visit their clinic at Netaji Subhas Road,” said Chowdhury. After a few sessions of counselling, Krishnendu’s daughter’s behaviour changed for the better, she was less stubborn and started performing well in school. “Now, we have realised that we were not being able to understand her problem. We should not have pressed her to perform well in exams,” said Kakali.

Manasi Sarkar faces a different situation with her only son Sayan, a KGII student. A resident of Kasundia Road, Sayan has turned an introvert, hardly interacting with his classmates and friends. He loves to stay alone at home. Manasi is fighting a divorce case with her husband. “My son always keeps quiet and hardly talks to his friends or neighbours. Since I am a working woman, I do not have much time to spare for my son. One of my friends told me to take him to a psychiatrist for counselling,” said Manasi.

Many parents in Howrah need help to manage their wards but there are very few organisations they can turn to. “What we need to do is to educate the parents first and then counsel the children. Parents should learn how to discipline their children. They should first stop believing in ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ theory,” said Sujay Chakraborty, secretary, Howrah Child Relief Foundation (CRF), a non-profit organisation, running a counselling centre for children at Godabori Apartment, on Netaji Subhas Road.

“Both parents and children are counselled. Most of the parents do not know how to deal with their children and can do permanent harm to them unknowingly,” said Muktalekha Mukherjee, clinical psychologist, at CRF. She said that there were instances when even family members turned hostile to traumatised children. “I have been counselling a 15-year-old girl, who has been suffering from acute depression after she was sexually abused by a close family member. The girl told me that she was accused by her parents ever since she confided in them,” said Muktalekha. She said that such children are prone to committing suicide if they did not get proper mental support from their parents and other family members.

Many teachers in Howrah still believe in corporal punishment. Members of CRF said there should be stringent law to deal with the parents and teachers, who still practise corporal punishment. They cited cases of suicide by students who couldn’t handle pressure either from their parents or from their teachers. “It is regrettable that many teachers are rude with their students. But that is not the way to deal with minors. Instead, they should try to understand their problems and talk to the children to solve them. In the counselling sessions, we ask the teachers to be present also,” said a member of the organisation. He regretted that teachers don’t attend the counsellings held in schools. “We want to turn the awareness campaign about children into a movement. Without active participation of the parents, this is not possible,” said Dr Kedarnath Chakraborty, president of CRF.

A procession on Children’s Day in Howrah against child abuse organised by Howrah Child Relief Foundation

The organisation publishes a quarterly magazine, Child exclusively for children. Poems, articles, short stories, sketches by children are published without edit. “These reflect the mind of the children. So we decided to publish each and every one of them. Getting the children to write and draw is part of the counselling process,” said Chakraborty. The members of the organisation, however, admitted that still a lot needs to be done. So without waiting for parents to visit the counselling centre, CRF volunteers have started holding counselling sessions at schools. The objective is two-pronged to integrate the problem child into the mainstream and to counsel teachers on how to handle such students.

On November 14, Children’s Day, more than a thousand children along with their parents participated in a procession held to highlight the problem. “We always extend our help to the voluntary organisations working on women and children,” said Debkumar Bhattacharya, district social welfare officer.