Nurture students, don’t torture them

Who will answer for the untimely death of a 13-year-old schoolgirl?

We are shocked and saddened by the death of an eighth grader in Narsingdi, who died by suicide after her teacher harassed her for wearing trousers with her school uniform. According to her classmates, the 13-year-old was reprimanded and publicly humiliated in front of her whole class by one of her teachers at Shibpur Government Pilot High School. She was also slapped and hit with a cane. Unable to bear the humiliation, she reportedly consumed poison, and then went to the police station to lodge a complaint. She collapsed there and was later pronounced dead at the sadar hospital.

The incident is disturbing on many levels. To begin with, why would a teacher torture a student for a seemingly harmless act as wearing trousers? Have we reached such a regressive point in our society that students have to be publicly policed by teachers for wearing clothes that do not conform to antiquated gender norms?

Over the past few months, we have been observing increasingly troubling actions and discussions around women's clothing – from assaulting a woman at a train station in Narsingdi for her attire, to a judge's comment that she was in an "objectionable" state for wearing jeans and a T-shirt, to public demonstrations calling out women's right to dress as they please. We are alarmed that these conversations seem to be spreading to our educational institutions, where we should be questioning entrenched patriarchal values and fostering women's emancipation in our society. As the education minister so aptly put it: now is the time to talk about robotics, not women's clothes. At a time when girls in Bangladesh are breaking barriers and glass ceilings and outperforming boys in almost all major public examinations, such narrow focus on clothing does them – and the country at large – a disservice and threatens to undo the tremendous progress made over the decades.

Even if, for argument's sake, we accept that the child had violated the school's dress code, it is completely unacceptable that a teacher would resort to harassment and corporal punishment – which is banned in all educational institutions in Bangladesh – to discipline her. Teachers ought to realise that their role as educators is to nurture, not torture, young and impressionable minds. The teacher who publicly humiliated the 13-year-old, without any consideration of how their action would affect the sensitivities of an emotional teenager, must now answer for her untimely death. 

Incidents of suicides have increased at an alarming rate in our educational institutions. Unfortunately, we have done little to address the pressing mental health concerns of adolescents and youth. It is high time we took a look at how the repressive and narrow-minded attitudes of our teachers and our educational institutions at large are contributing to the mental health crisis of our young generation and take effective and urgent measures to address this looming pandemic.