Despite laws and commitments to do more both at home and abroad, we continue to fall short in protecting our children from violence.
Sexual abuse against children remains prevalent in the country and the way we are handling it shows that we are doing little to address this issue.
Earlier this month, a farmer in Sarpang was detained for alleged rape of a 13 year-old girl. The girl and her two brothers were living with the farmer, a distant relative to attend school since February this year. She claims she was raped twice.
Except for the Bjemina molestation case in Thimphu sometime last year, we did not see other sexual abuse cases given as much attention by our policy makers. The reaction showed that the place of incidence and its ownership matters more than the alleged crime. That, if these conditions were not met, molestation cases rarely qualify for prosecution. Our inactions are frightening.
But attention must be drawn to the recent case because while highlighting the challenges rural children go through to attend school, it shows the fallacy in our education system, the cracks left behind and created by policies. It shows how these issues together have resulted in leaving some of our children vulnerable to abuse.
We saw institutions locking horns over the location of central schools when the initiative was rolled out. Central schools were also expected to address the issue of informal boarding, which has almost become a part of our education system. Efforts to make access to schools convenient through central schools have helped many families and children but it has also been unable to accommodate all. Today, we have a case of a child who was left vulnerable to sexual abuse only because she was dependent on the perpetrator for shelter to attend school. There would be more.
According to the national commission for women and children, the biggest challenge in eliminating violence against children is cases going unreported. But we don’t tend to do much even when cases do get reported. We have a problem when institutions meant to protect the rights of children overreact to media reports than on the crime committed against a child.
It is time we change the way we understand and perceive sexual abuse against children. It is time policy makers go beyond lip service in assuring their commitments to protect our children. Inactions will compel vulnerable children to leave schools and give up on education. Bhutan has come this far because of education and it can ill afford to leave behind its children, its future as it strides forward.
The government, among others has pledged to review the central school project, reopen schools that are strategically located to benefit people, ensure transport for rural school children and support policies to hold accountable people who commit violence against women and children.
While it is to be seen how the government would go about keeping its promises, protecting our children should not be reduced to campaign promises and pledges. It is a responsibility. November 11, the birth anniversary of the fourth Druk Gyalpo is a reminder to the people, the society of this responsibility. We may not celebrate children’s day anymore but we cannot forget our responsibility towards our future.