The education ministry would commission a study to come up with a comprehensive safe school programme that would look into the entire school system including loopholes in terms of counselling in primary school to enable abused child to reach out and seek support.

Education minister Norbu Wangchuk shared this at the education dialogue “making school safe” on April 19.  The move from the ministry has come in the wake of the recent sexual abuse case reported in a primary school in Bjemina, Thimphu.

“We are trying to launch it in 2019 and even if the present government’s term ends, we would like to leave this solid initiative,” he said. “The second initiative is, every single teacher in the country would receive basic counselling training of five days to build their capacity in recognising a child in problem.”

The lack of counsellors in primary schools was also discussed at the dialogue since the cases of sexual abuse was occurring at these schools. The department of youth and sports has placed 103 full time counsellors in secondary schools but not one in primary schools.

A primary school principal said that primary schools are getting limited attention when it comes to counselling and that they are not even considered one as a stakeholder.

“If children are not taken care in the primary school, how can we expect a matured and sound student in the secondary school,” a principal asked. “What are the plans in place for primary school students?”

Career education and counselling division’s chief, Tashi Pelzom, who was on the panel during the talk, said counselling is to help the children internalise and then help themselves, which is not going to be helpful for small children at the primary level.

“In primary schools, counselling is not going to help because students are not matured enough to internalise,” Tashi Pelzom said.

However, she added that there were many areas that needed to be relooked, which is why a consultative meeting with 84 counsellors, 20 dzongkhag education officers and four thromde education officers have led to the formulation of a draft student welfare programme.

“We met 186 secondary school principals and we’ve come up with a plan for safe school programme focused on prevention,” she said. “The ministry has actually resolved that this year, to equip them with skills to support our children, we would focus on professional development for more than 10,000 teachers on basic counselling.”

The division has also trained 181 ToTs for primary school teachers to identify children in vulnerable situation and where to refer them incase if they are unable to support them.

“The comprehensive safe school programme would also define what is a safe school and then go down to even describing the roles and responsibilities of all stakeholders,” she said.

Another panelist, RENEW’s executive director, Tadin Wangmo said that RENEW carried out a study on the status of vulnerable children in 2016 and the findings were disturbing, which is why RENEW is looking into working together with primary schools.

It has begun working on a child protection policy and curriculum for primary schools to be implemented in 2019.

This would help them work with children on identifying good touch from bad, challenges at home, being safe when they are with relatives and what they should do to protect themselves when in danger.

“We have consultants working on this and we hope to be able to help primary schools in the next two years.”

She said RENEW received two cases of sexual abuse of children between eight and 13 years in 2015, which increased to five cases in 2016, and 14 cases in 2017. These cases were reported to RENEW head office and excludes complaints received from RENEW volunteers in 20 districts.

“When we conducted an analysis, the youngest was 11 years, and it was a rape by a family member,” she said. “A total of 12 sexual abuse cases were reported from January to April this year and this doesn’t include the nine girls in Bjemina.”

The issue of mental illness was also raised at the talk where panelists said that mental illness was used as a screen to shield the perpetrators.

Works and human settlement minister Dorji Choden and chair of NCWC who was also a panelist, said there is a need to analyse mental sickness of the perpetrators properly because if they get away, it questions the seriousness of legal action.

“An assessment conducted by the NCWC on minor rape cases that were prosecuted showed that actions are not that strong,” she said. For instance, she said that three to nine months to nine years of imprisonment indicates that legal actions are not strong.

Tandin Wangmo said that in the case of Bjemina, the vice principal besides being convicted for a similar case earlier was later recruited based on the recommendations of some high ranking officials.

She shared that RENEW received a case where a biological father had raped his daughter for almost 10 years. “There was no way of proving and she had to go through the painful moment again to get her father to confess.”

Yangchen C Rinzin