Ending corporal punishment of children: Time for action is now!
This is an opportune moment to discuss this issue with April 30 being observed as the International Day to End Corporal Punishment of Children. Corporal punishment includes any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, as well as non-physical forms of punishment that are cruel and degrading.
Corporal punishment violates children's human dignity and physical integrity and is a blatant violation of their rights under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Around four in five children between the ages of 2 and 14 are subjected to some kind of violent discipline at homes (Hidden in Plain Sight: A statistical analysis of violence against children, UNICEF, 2014).
There is a circular (2011) by the Ministry of Education banning corporal punishment in educational settings in Bangladesh. However, children continue to be beaten and humiliated by teachers. In addition, they are subjected to corporal punishment at homes, workplaces, etc. According to the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey 2019 by Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics and UNICEF, 89 percent of children (1-14 years) in Bangladesh experienced violent discipline in the month before the survey was conducted.
A "review of research on the effects of corporal punishment" by the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children, 2013 analysed 150 studies and presented a convincing case that corporal punishment is harmful for children, adults and societies. Since then, a huge amount of scientific research has clearly demonstrated the negative outcomes of corporal punishment, which affects children's physical and psychological health, cognitive development and education, and also damages parent-child relationship.
When adults hit their children in the name of discipline, children comply to avoid further punishment, but they do not internalise why that particular act/behaviour should be avoided. So it is very likely that they will repeat it. This means that punishment is ineffective as a disciplining technique. There are correlations between being punished as a child (as well as attitudes favourable to corporal punishment) and domestic violence in adulthood. If societies continue to allow corporal punishment of children, it will be impossible to break the intergenerational cycle of violence.
Even when we know corporal punishment is harmful, it remains legally permitted in many countries. Some 62 states across all regions of the world have enacted laws banning corporal punishment of children in all settings including homes, schools, workplaces, institutions, alternative care arrangements, etc. But 87 percent of the children globally are still not protected from corporal punishment by law. This includes Bangladeshi children as well.
When we have a legal system that states that assaulting an adult is an offence but assaulting a child is acceptable, the law is discriminating against the child and there is no equality under the law. Banning corporal punishment in all settings has become even more urgent during the Covid-19 pandemic, as it has placed millions of children everywhere at a greater risk of violence at homes.
From my experience of working in various countries including Bangladesh, Papua New Guinea and Liberia, I know that any initiative to introduce legal prohibition of corporal punishment is usually met with resistance by adults (parents, teachers, community members, policy makers, etc.). They repeatedly claim that beating by parents and teachers has been going on for long in societies, and that this is a common practice. But nothing could be justified in the name of "tradition" if that hurts a human being.
Some argue that many parents are raising their children in challenging conditions and teachers are often under stress because of overcrowding and lack of resources, and thus, they often use corporal punishment as a "last resort". In reality, corporal punishment is often an outlet for adults to vent their personal frustrations rather than an attempt to educate children. In many households and institutions, adults need more resources and support. But hitting and humiliating children is never acceptable even when adults face difficulties. We must stop giving excuses to justify corporal punishment.
The primary aim of legislation banning corporal punishment in all settings is to send a clear message that violence against children will not be tolerated. It is not to prosecute parents or make them feel guilty. Research shows that legal reforms have led to reduced acceptance of corporal punishment among parents and other members of society. This has been the case in Sweden, Finland, Germany, New Zealand, Poland, and Romania. We also know that positive parenting programmes promote non-violent child rearing practices and can change perceptions and attitudes among parents, caregivers and other people working with children.
Ending corporal punishment is a human rights imperative and also essential if the world is to meet the Sustainable Development Goal (target 16.2) to end all violence against children by 2030. The following reforms should be considered: 1) All countries that have not yet achieved prohibition, including Bangladesh, should ban corporal punishment of children in all settings by 2030; 2) Legal reforms must be linked to awareness raising as well as developing capacity on positive, non-violent forms of parenting and education. The media can play a crucial role in campaigning to end corporal punishment of children and changing social attitudes so that adults treat children with respect and dignity; 3) The messages on positive discipline should be built into the training of all those who work with or for children and families, in health, education, and social services; and 4) Governments and other actors should engage with children and respect their views in all aspects of preventing and responding to corporal punishment.
Children have a right to equal legal protection, and it is extremely important for all of us that they grow up in a non-violent and peaceful environment. How long will it take for adults to understand something as simple as this?
Laila Khondkar is an international development worker.