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Selected Readarounds in Child and Youth Care

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Negative effects of corporal punishment on children

Lillian Hannah Banda


Ruptured eardrums, brain damage and other bodily injuries and death in some instances are some of the bad and tragic effects of corporal punishment. While the physical damage done to the body can be treated, the emotional and psychological effects can affect the survivor deeply. Corporal punishment is the hitting of a person with a hand or an object such as a cane or belt. It is also kicking, burning, shaking or throwing of a person with the intention of inflicting pain on them. Pinching or pulling the hair, forcing one to sit in uncomfortable or undignified positions, or forcing one to take excessive physical exercise as a way of disciplining them is tantamount to corporal punishment.

Although prohibited by law in Zambia as a way of disciplining children in schools, corporal punishment is still widely practised by teachers and by parents in homes. This is because no measures have been taken to ensure that legislation is implemented and the behaviour of perpetrators changed. Corporal punishment is still widely practised by teachers and parents as reflected in a qualitative and quantitative survey of 2,705 boys and girls aged between six and 18 years.

The objective of the survey was to explore a diversity of experiences; views and feelings related to corporal punishment and other forms of humiliating and degrading punishment of children. It was also intended to estimate the levels of corporal punishment in schools and homes in the country. The study looked at corporal and humiliating and degrading punishment of children over a period of two weeks. It was conducted in 2005 in all the nine provinces of Zambia by the Zambia Civic Education Association and commissioned by Save The Children Sweden.

According to the survey, corporal punishment and other forms of degrading and humiliating punishment are still widely practised in Zambia both at school and at home. Children are often hit with a hand, a stick or hosepipe in schools when they do wrong. At home they are hit with sticks, belts, hands and in some cases denied food.

Some parents and child tenders alike practise corporal punishment because of the belief that children do not grow to be well-mannered adults if they are not spanked or beaten when they make mistakes. Some even say that abolishing corporal punishment is a Western-centric concept that will cause havoc in African cultures and lead to moral decay.

The study also established that corporal punishment is more pronounced in low-income environments than in affluent communities. This can be attributed to poverty and its effects like stress and high illiteracy levels in these communities. Such factors tend to have an effect on how adults discipline children. Whatever reasons, parents and teachers and indeed other care-givers may have to justify corporal punishment as a form of child discipline. It should be noted that its effects on survivors are damaging.

According to Father Derrick Muwina, an assistant priest at the Anglican Cathedral of The Holy Cross Lusaka, corporal punishment only induces fear and distorts reasoning. "Beating or treating children in a degrading manner are ineffective ways of disciplining them because they only save as quick fixes that are detrimental to a child and do not provide a lasting solution to a problem. In schools for instance, teachers should tell pupils the benefits of possessing a good character coupled with good academic performance and also the consequences of one not possessing them. This approach instils a sense of responsibility in them. On the other hand corporal punishment induces fear and distorts reasoning. Fr Muwina asserted: "Children need discipline but they need to learn self-discipline. There is need to encourage non-violent and non-humiliating ways of instilling discipline in them."

Corporal punishment does not help a child to develop into an adult with self-discipline and respect for other people. Instead, it distorts sound judgement and creates anti-social behaviours.

Fr Muwina further asserted that some people have taken biblical scriptures literally. He cited Proverbs 11: 7, which says "spare the rod and spoil the child."

According to Fr Muwina, the portion of the scripture in question does not literally mean what most people perceive it to entail "This does not literally mean what it has generally been perceived to mean. In this case the rod is the code of conduct. The psalmist says, Thy rod and thy stuff they comfort me. How can something comfort and cause you pain at the same time? The rod referred to in the Bible is the code of conduct that is meant to guide and instruct one in the right path for them to have a disciplined and fulfilling life, Fr Muwina said.

And according to the same study, corporal punishment is used more frequently on younger children (6-12 years) than on older children (13-18 years). Older children experience humiliating and degrading treatment to a larger extent. There was also a small but consistent trend for boys to be subjected to corporal punishment while older girls experienced humiliating and degrading punishment in the form of verbal abuse to a larger extent.

Corporal punishment works against the process of ethical development. It teaches children not to engage in a particular behaviour because they risk being beaten. But it does not teach them the reasons and ethics for not behaving in a particular manner.

It is said that violence breeds violence. The use of corporal punishment on children contributes to a perception from an early age that violence is an appropriate response to conflict resolution and unwanted behaviour. It teaches them that it is acceptable for powerful persons to be violent towards the weak and to resolve conflicts through violence.

The escalating levels of gender violence especially against women and children are evidence of this archaic and despicable method of disciplining young people. Children exposed to non-peaceful ways of conflict resolution often become perpetrators of gender violence in their adulthood. Exposing children to violence can make them potential perpetrators of such vices later in life.

Notwithstanding its devastating effects on survivors and society at large, it is disheartening to note that less than 20 countries globally have adopted legislation to prohibit corporal punishment of children. Some countries have even outlawed corporal punishment of children in schools and other institutions.

Corporal punishment violates human rights to physical integrity and human dignity, as upheld by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, as well as the Zambian Constitution.

Often times, children are viewed as second-class humans, but they are as much entitled to their equal enjoyment of rights just as adults. For some reasons, corporal punishment of children has not been given the seriousness it deserves. This has caused a lot of children to suffer silently. Children too have the right to be heard. But more often than not, society does not want to accord them the opportunity to do so. This is because adults tend to think that children are incapable of reasoning and hence cannot be consulted even on issues concerning them. Given a choice, children would prefer to be disciplined in non-violent and non-humiliating ways.

According to the same study, approximately 70 per cent of the children found corporal punishment in the home and at school unacceptable. Their sentiment was the same for humiliating punishment, which approximately found 79 per cent unacceptable as evidenced by the study that showed 75 per cent of the children were against corporal punishment. The children said that the practice is harmful both physically and emotionally and that it induces fear in them and thereby reduces their concentration. The majority of children said that they would prefer parents and teachers to talk to them and explain what they did wrong instead of beating them or using other forms of humiliating and degrading punishment as a way of disciplining them. Given the children's response, it can be said therefore that children would prefer to be treated with respect just like everyone else. Thus, to have adults listen to them and to be given a better understating of what they have done wrong instead of rushing into beating or treating them inhumanely.

However, eleven per cent of the children preferred corporal punishment when being disciplined. This option was more favoured by children from low-income environments. A possible sad explanation to this perception could be that these children live in environments where violent forms of discipline are acceptable and they are so used to violence as a way of correction such that they cannot imagine any other forms of discipline.

Zambia Police Service Victim Support Unit coordinator, Peter Kanunka said most cases of corporal punishment go unreported unless in situations where a teacher physically and emotionally hurts a pupil. Unfortunately, even such cases are in most cases not reported, therefore, perpetuating the menace of corporal punishment as a form of punishment. "Survivors grow up traumatised as a result of physical and emotional pain inflicted on them," Mr Kanunka said.

Unfortunately, the ban on corporal punishment in schools has not been followed up by measures that offer alternatives to the vice. Many teachers feel that the Government prohibited corporal punishment without providing them with proper guidelines and training on alternative methods of discipline. The lack of skills to manage discipline through non-violent ways and cultural beliefs that tend to encourage the beating of children as a way of disciplining them have perpetrated the practice. There is need to provide teachers with some form of training in disciplining children by using positive and non-violent ways that can be incorporated in the teachers' training curriculum.

As rightly observed by Zambia's Human Rights Commission director, Enoch Mulembe, corporal punishment is an evil. "Disciplining children by corporal punishment and other inhuman ways is evil. We should encourage non-violent ways of discipline because corporal punishment has proved to be destructive," said Mulembe.

Childhood is not only a long journey but also a delicate part of one's life because it is the time when one's personality is moulded into what they become later in life. Despite its profoundly negative effects on survivors, corporal and degrading punishment of children is in many instances still legalised and a socially accepted form of violence against children. The low status of children in society and their lack of power have prevented a complete prohibition of the vice in many countries including Zambia. It is therefore our collective obligation to ensure that children's right to a life free from violence including corporal punishment and other forms of degrading punishment is protected. This right extends into the private life and home of the child.

Abolishing corporal punishment in schools by Government is not enough. There is need for legislation to be implemented so as to protect children from violence and to promote human dignity and advance human rights. It should be noted that both corporal punishment and humiliating and degrading punishment is not only harmful to children but also violates children's rights.

It should also be noted that human rights start with children's rights.

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