By Uuganbayar BOLORTUYA, Journalist, Eagle TV Mongolia, Grand Prix Winner – Investigative Journalism Contest
In sign language I am greeting you “How are you?”.
People with hearing impairment would not understand if I do not use this means of communication. It is sad that people with hearing impairment would never hear the sound of rain drop falling to the ground; the scary sound of lightning during a thunderstorm and they would never hear the first sounds of their new born baby, the last word of someone dear to them and how their spouses are gently expressing their feelings.
That is why, these people use sign language. Sign language for them is the gateway to the rest of the world. Sign language helps them to learn, to say something, to express their feelings and opinion, and, to communicate with the society. A special school was established in the country in 1964 to support children with hearing impairment so that they can engage and communicate with the rest of the society.
Sadly, students from this school are graduating without proper knowledge except that they only know how to copy from their textbooks. They cannot write, calculate or even read. What’s more, they are emotionally, financially and sexually harassed.
These children are screaming but silently!
Part 1. The first ever strike by Mongolian school children
27 March 2017. 15 male students from School 29 staged a protest demonstration. They carried slogans written in black and white their demands about which they could not speak out: “Teach in sign language”, “Sign language is our language”, “Listen to our needs and respect our difference” among other messages.
1 April 2017. U. Urantsetseg, a journalist with the Medee.mn website, published an interview with S. Altansükh, a 12th grade student of school number 29. In his interview Altansükh revealed that their teachers are drunk during classes, they abuse students – male teachers punch the boys and sexually harass girl students, and that a male contraceptive was found in the classroom dust bin. Although the face of the student who appeared in the interview was pixelated, it was not hard for the school managers to find out who appeared in the interview.
4 April 2017. Teachers of school number 29 called a press conference, where they threatened to sue journalist Urantsetseg for her interview. Taking part in the press conference was one of the most expensive lawyers in country, Mr. Batbayar. He said that the journalist was being sued as there was no evidence to prove the accusations levelled against the teachers who were being wronged for drinking in classrooms, for immoral and unethical behavior. He even denied that was any sexual harassment at all. He spoke with confidence and conviction like someone who had first-hand experience and knowledge of the realities of these students.
7 April 2017. The Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sport held a press conference. Ministry officials acknowledged the allegations of the students. They admitted that 56% of the teachers of the School 29 did not know sign language. However, they claimed that other serious accusations against the teachers could not be confirmed. The Ministry officials were overwhelmed with questions from journalists and responded saying “We shall continue our investigation until we come to conclusive result” and promised not to leave any stone unturned. Unfortunately, a high-ranking Ministry official whom we interviewed officially a week later told us that “the ministry’s working group had completed its assignment and we are not going any further.”
I have here with me the results of a survey in which 64 students of School 29 took part. Most of the students had written about being emotionally harassed and more seriously 3% of the respondents had replied saying they were sexually harassed.
We met with Ts. Altanzaya, Chief of Child Development and Protection Department of the Family, Child and Youth Development Agency regarding the survey. Said Altanzaya: “We gave the survey result to the school management. We classified violence into five categories: psychological, neglect, physical, sexual and economic and asked students if they were victims of any one of them. We organized a one-to-one meeting between a psychologist and the three students who said they were sexually harassed at school. If their accusation is confirmed then we will approach the police… Even touching someone else’s body is one form of sexual harassment.”
As I was making this TV program, I had subsequent meetings with many other students of the schools to gather more information. They said they have been warned to keep away from journalists if they did not want to go to jail like Altansükh. From them I realized that Altansükh was not alone.
Part 2: Confessions by ‘The Victims’
One of the advantages of the School 29 is that students can graduate with a vocation such as “Hairdresser-Beautician”, “Food industry Specialist-Baker”, “Carpenter” and “Tailor”. Unfortunately, these students graduate without the basic literacy and numeracy skills. Although they don’t even miss a single class they do not understand the subject because the teachers use spoken instead of sign language. I was told there were only 2 or 3 teachers in the entire school who held classes in sign language. Despite this, the Education Ministry keeps on claiming that 50% of the teachers know and use sign language.
I beg your pardon for not showing the face of the children that we are interviewing. I do not want to put them at risk of retaliation. Some of the students even confessed that some of them are being harassed much more simply because they have told their parents about the conditions at the school and the behavior of their teachers.
The students I have met will not be the first students who would be graduating from this school without literacy and numeracy skill. Previous graduates, or should I say victims, have gone through the same ordeal as their education level has not been any better than those who would be graduating this year. Many of the graduates admitted that they scratch a living doing menial manual labor with minimum pay, on which they would not survive if not for their monthly social welfare benefit. They’d be content working as a dish washer, a waiter or a waitress their entire life.
A former graduate of the school (Photo on page 28) said: “I graduated from School 29 in 1996. It’s true children pass from this school with almost no literacy or numeracy skill. It’s really tough finding a job because we are not only deaf and dumb, but simply because we cannot even read and write.”
Said another graduate: “I am only from among my class mates to join a college to become a makeup specialist. When I communicate with others in writing, they do not understand me. Had our teachers taught us using sign language, we would not have found ourselves in such a miserable state today.” And added another former student of School 29: “It was not easy graduating from a college. If only I can find a job I will be able to make a living. Presently, my mother is feeding me. How can a person who is illiterate dream of living a proper life?”
This is a problem of not just one single school, the only school in the whole of the country that is exclusively for children with hearing impairment. This school is perhaps a glaring example of the declining state of education system of the country.
However, in recent years a term called “inclusive education” is being used, which is being qualified as a solution to providing quality education also to children with disabilities. Throughout the world, children with disabilities are among those most likely to be out of school and remain invisible.
Let me take up myself Bolortuya as an example. I have hearing problem and I live in, say, Töv aimag and since I reside in this aimag, under the “inclusive education” scheme I can attend a normal secondary school in the aimag. But is this a reality, a possibility?
This is what D. Erdenechimeg, Chief of the Education Policy Department of the Ministry of Education (photo below left) said, “14 thousand children with disabilities, including children with hearing impairment, are attending normal secondary schools around the country. There are such children also in kindergartens. Some schools have been retrofit to eliminate physical, communication and information barriers.”
I visited 2 normal schools in downtown Ulaanbaatar and asked their principals If they would enroll a child with disabilities and this was their common answer: “That is not possible right now. Actions are being taken to include children with disabilities in normal schools. In the least, normal schools do not have a single sign language teacher.”
What does this mean? Students of School 29 have no other school to go to. And there is no school to welcome them either and no teacher who can teach them in their sign language. But the only school for children with hearing impairment in the whole of country has so many quality problems. “Problem” may be too tender a word to use in this case. The situation is demanding.
But what did Mr. Erdenechimeg, a senior ministry official with many years of service had to say: “We must realize that we are not doing something that is way different and segregated from the rest of the world.”
From Part 3 you will find out that the Ministry does not walk the talk. It talks something different from what is written on paper as a kind of policy.
Part 3. Children are not “Punching Bags”
School 29 has become notorious for student “bullying” not by the students themselves but by their teachers and educators. Incidence of punching on heads, kicking, pinching and verbal insults and abuse is reportedly increasing. I was told that a boy student, who was punched by his male teacher, retaliated and had ran away from school. The look and the tears in the eyes of students of School 29 mean that the school’s students, who are bullied and maltreated, are under constant mental pressure.
One of the students said, “It’s true that teachers beat students. I got a scolding when I asked my teacher that I did not understand the subject. A lady from the Education Ministry came to our school and we believe din her when she promised there would be changes. But everything’s the same as before. As our parents are far away in the countryside, we are unable to tell them about all this.”
I wish I could show their facial expression when they talk about their ordeal but I can’t as their identity must be kept anonymous. These students are able to express their inner feelings, emotions and pain only through eye gestures, movement of their hands, facial expressions and their body language. This is their culture which is recognized internationally. But in Mongolia why do children with hearing impairments have to struggle for their life?
The claims by students that their teachers abuse and maltreat them have been confirmed by former graduates of the school, with some of whom I was able to meet and interview, as they too were victims at one time. According to them, two female graduates of the school had written a petition to the Education Ministry of Education in 1996 in which they had complained about the abuse and maltreatment boarding students have to suffer and their treatment like slaves as they were forced to cook for themselves by the school cooks, and of course, they complained about the poor quality of teaching. The then Ministry of Education reacted promptly by setting up an investigation panel to look into their grievances of the graduate students and the entire top management of the school were fired.
But what’s happening today? The students of School 29 went on a strike, they asked for justice, protection against abuse and harassment. But the school director B. Batsaikhan was only reprimanded and remained in is job (But when this story was being printed, Batsaikahn was fired from his job and replaced. TMO), and the Education Ministry official Erdenechimeg had this to tell: “I am hearing about this from you now only and so I have nothing to add.”
Part 4: Girls aren’t targets for violence
In 2014, several NGOs came together and organized a flash mob called “girls aren’t targets for violence”. During the flash mob, girls were saying that they were sexually harassed, some men in the street would touch their breasts and butts. Imagine yourself in their shoes. Imagine that you are a 10th grade student and your teacher touches your breasts and butt, and tries to hold you from your waist? What would a man think when seeing this kind of harassment? Underage girls also know what is sexual harassment. We contacted many girls and asked if they were sexually harassed and their answer was “Yes.”
Two girls whom we interviewed admitted they were sexually violated by their own teachers. They cried when they were talking about their stories because they were required to attend the class of their abusive teachers. They said they didn’t want to attend their class as they feel disgusted just thinking about them.
One of the girls from School 29: Once a male teacher stood at my back and held my hand. I was in a lesson and it was revolting. I know other girls have also been harassed by our teachers.
Added the second girl: “It’s true that male teachers touch the girl’s breast and they say ‘We were just joking.’”
The girls related to me many other serious incidents. I am refraining from going into details or else the abusive teachers would know which students had been complaining. Imagine what the Director of the school Batsaikhan about the allegations by his students: “The girls were given gift (which is Beleg in Mongolia) and they were mixing up the word Beleg with Belgiin (Belgiin in Mongolian means sexual and have the same pronunciation. TMO).”
The Ministry of Education, obviously to protect their image, mockingly claimed that the allegations of sexual harassment at the school have not been confirmed because the Ministry officials, instead of meeting and talking with the students, only spoke to the teachers, who naturally would not admit their guilt.
A reliable source which asked us not to reveal their identity revealed to us that some of the members of the investigation panel from the Ministry, who were supposed to investigate allegations of sexual abuse in the school, were childhood friends of the school director and managers and were from the same aimag.
The (former) director of School 29 Batsaikhan hails from Khovd aimag. He had asked one of his friends from Khovd to approach me to request if I could reconsider my decision to broadcast this program.
When I was making this program, I discovered that the School Director Batsaikhan’s monthly salary was considerably much more than what the directors of normal public schools receive. On top of this, Batsaikhan was even selected for additional bonus for ‘outstanding performance!’ by the UB City Education Department.
What hypocrisy and what a double standard.
Many graduates of School 29 had admitted they had finished their school without even able to read and write and now many students are providing evidence of bullying and sexual harassment by teachers under school director Batsaikhan.
I have found a damning evidence, which may but seem petty. I managed to find a photo from the Facebook account of Ms. Alimaa, academic manager of School 29, where she is seen sitting behind a table laid out with cookies and cakes, and a bottle of vodka. According to the school children, their teachers and other staff are not always drunk but do come to the classes a little tipsy. And wouldn’t the teachers take a sip from the vodka when their school manager has a bottle of vodka within the school premises?
However, school Director Batsaikhan denied any wrongdoing by his teachers. “How would a teacher during school hours drink. But during non-school hours there were some isolated incidences of our teachers taking booze.”
What would teachers do, who when ‘sober’ sexually harass their students, when they are inebriated?
Of course, I am not saying that School 29 does not have good teachers. I have no right to deny what’s good but as a journalist I have no moral or ethical right to gloss over what’s wrong and sinful, especially when the rights of children are violated so grossly.
Journalists are retaliated for bringing out the truth.
U. Urantsetseg, a journalist with the news website medee.mn, who first brought to light the plight of students of School 29 with her interview with Altansükh is being sued by the teachers of school #29 who are demanding 50 million tögrög for defamation and tarnishing the image of their school.
Said Urantsetseg: “A journalist must be independent in a democratic society. It is unfortunate that journalists are retaliated for telling the truth when the rights of the children are grossly violated. A journalist is being threatened and blackmailed for bringing to light the dark side of the society.”
Mr. Batbayar, School 29 lawyer, is arguing that the journalists are creating an uproar around the testimony of a handful of schoolchildren. Isn’t it the duty of the adults to ensure that the right of not even a single child in violated? Not a single child, and the more so, a child with physical disabilities and hearing impairment, should and can be subject to abuse, and the more so, physical and sexual abuse.
In Ancient Egypt, it was considered acceptable to act immorally or unethically in front of slaves, but inappropriate to act in such a manner before the eyes of free citizens. History seems to be repeating itself today. Children who are deaf and dumb cannot be treated like animals or slaves. They are the country’s future. They cannot hear or talk, but they are HUMANS.
These children from School 29, they cannot hear and they also cannot talk, but they are SCREAMING SILENTLY asking the society to recognize their basic right to live and study in a normal environment and to be treated as human beings.
Footnote: Please kindly note that the story Silent Screaming by Uuganbayar Bolortuya is a TV program which was broadcast in April 207 on Eagle TV. The story has been adapted for print media, and some of the images used are from the video imagery and the office of TMO apologizes for the sub-standard quality of some of the images used here. TMO would like to thank the Mongolian Center for Investigative Journalism for the permission granted to TMO to reprint the story by U. Bolortuya, which won the Grand Prix for investigative journalism writing contest announced by the Press Institute of Mongolia.