When Ailin was in Year Two, she was made to strip naked in school and run around the school field several times just because she forgot to bring her t-shirt and shorts for Physical Education class.
Ailin is 39 now but still has horrific memories of school, especially PE classes, because of that really bad experience.
She wasn’t the only child subjected to the punishment
“It was the most traumatic experience ever. I felt embarrassed, humiliated and violated, ” she says, adding that she was in a co-ed school.
Some of her schoolmates laughed and jeered at them, yelling “Shame! Shame!” while others didn’t bat an eyelid.
What was most appalling, she says, was how it was accepted as a “normal, acceptable punishment” in school.
It was only years later when Ailin realised that what had happened was a violation of her rights as a child and a human being.
She never told her parents about the humiliating incident.
“Did the ‘punishment’ work? Yes, I never forgot to bring my PE gear again. But it violates a child’s rights and is an abuse of authority by the teacher, ” says Ailin, adding that she grew up with a very low self-esteem and negative body image.
It was only recently that Ailin decided to break the silence and share about what happened to her, after many students and former students spoke up on social media platforms about the bullying, harassment and abuse that happens in schools.
“School should be a place where children feel safe and are given room to grow, but unfortunately, that wasn’t the case for me. The worst thing is that the teachers who are supposed to guide and nurture the children and help them to grow into well-developed, confident and responsible adults, are the ones who are instigating such abuse under the guise of discipline or punishment, ” says Ailin.
Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW) executive director Sivananthi Thanenthiran says that the allegations of students are disturbing and must be a “wake-up call” for parents, teachers and schools to protect children at all costs.
“Schools are supposed to be the place where a girl can discover herself, realise her talents and her strengths. But in these instances, students have been traumatised, violated and scarred, and unnecessarily so.
“This is a wake-up call for all adults that we need to have open channels of communication with the younger generation so that they can turn to us quickly and easily when they are facing violence and violations. Who will be an advocate for our children if it is not we ourselves?” says Sivananthi.
Sending a wrong message
Leilani was a prefect in secondary school and under the guise of “discipline”, she had often been instructed to carry out “spot checks” on girls. This made her extremely uncomfortable.
“As a prefect, I had often been asked to conduct spot checks on girls to see if they were hiding prohibited items in their bras such as cigarettes or handphones, ” she reveals.
“I would often go home and cry because I was very frightened, especially when I also saw the teachers slapping and yelling at the girls, ” she says.
At 25, Leilani is able to see that she had mistakenly believed that this was not abuse nor harassment but rather, punishment for misbehaviour.
“People look down on kids who are naughty and think they deserve to receive this type of punishment and nobody ever speaks out against it, ” she says.
Her own experience of sexual harassment occurred when she was 14. A boy whom she knew had followed her into the female washroom and peeped at her.
“I went into the cubicle and locked the door, not realising that he had climbed over the wall and was peeping at me.
Leilani panicked, unsure of what to do or how to react but was able to run out when another girl entered the toilet.
“I was too afraid to report what had happened because the teachers have always told us, ‘don’t make friends with boys’ and ‘you can’t simply hang out with boys’.
“I was afraid I would get blamed for it if I told anybody," she says, adding that she didn’t feel safe enough to have reported the incident back then.
"Many children don’t speak up against such acts because often, students who speak out, fear of being labelled as troublemakers, says Sivananthi.
“They fear being ostracised or further bullied or harassed, ” she says.
“Matters of sexual and reproductive health have long been shrouded in stigma and taboo in society and this makes discussions about such issues difficult for children, their parents, and also teachers.
“This is why many children aren’t aware that such acts are abuse and a violation of their rights and they never speak up about it, until much, much later, ” says Sivananthi.