Putting an end to corporal punishment

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Many children in the world face violence against and two in three do so at the hands of those who are supposed to love them the most. This happens in many places including homes, classrooms, childcare centres and others. Today, 86 per cent of the world’s children are not protected from this practice by the law.

Though the Circular of 2016 prohibits the use of corporal punishment in government schools, it does not apply to all schools and has not been confirmed in legislation.

 Since 2017, Sri Lanka has been a path-finding country with the Global Partnership to ‘End Violence Against Children’, and Governments have committed to ending violence against children by 2030, but corporal punishment continues to blight billions of children’s lives worldwide.

However, in 2021, a landmark case was reported in Sri Lanka involving a 15-year-old child. Following that, the judgment of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka again condemned the use of corporal punishment of children in schools.

The case was brought before the Supreme Court by a 15-year-old student and his parents against the teachers and authorities of a public school. The student had been slapped across the face by one of the teachers which resulted in permanent hearing impairment. The complainants argued that the teacher violated Article 11 of the Sri Lankan Constitution which prohibits torture, cruel, inhuman degrading treatment, or punishment. 

“The Court found that the use of corporal punishment by the teacher violated the Constitution. It ordered compensation to be paid to the student by the teacher and the State respectively. Using clear and unequivocal arguments against corporal punishment of children, the Supreme Court stated, while corporal punishment does not amount to torture in itself in the instant case, the practice of infliction of physical or mental punishment which disregards the inherent dignity of a child amounts to inhuman or degrading punishment”.

International Day to End Corporal Punishment and Its Objectives

 To mark International Day to End Corporal Punishment of children on 30 April, ‘End Violence Against Children’ and ‘End Corporal Punishment’ organised a webinar under the guidance of the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) to put an end to corporal punishment in Sri Lanka.  

Major objectives in ending corporal punishment are: all governments should act to prohibit and eliminate corporal punishment by 2030, organisations and individuals across all contexts and sectors should unite to call for urgent action to end corporal punishment, commit to taking steps towards this goal, and hear the voices of children and their right to equal protection from violence.

Addressing the webinar, the Chief of Child Protection, UNICEF, Miranda Armstrong noted that hitting or punishing children will not change anything and will affect the child in a negative way. In many countries, violence against women was banned whereas laws have been not implemented to end corporal punishment.

According to a survey, globally, 25 per cent of children are facing corporal punishment at schools and the practice is increasing.

Several statements regarding punishing children are misunderstood by parents and teachers, and it is being used in a wrong manner which will affect the children severely.

“We should make sure to have a safe and secure environment for the children to study and grow,” said Armstrong.

What is Corporal Punishment?

 According to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, corporal or physical punishment means any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort. It mostly involves hitting (smacking, slapping, spanking) children, with the hand or with a whip, stick, belt, shoe, wooden spoon, and others. It can also involve kicking, shaking, or throwing children, scratching, pinching, biting, pulling hair or boxing ears, forcing children to stay in uncomfortable positions, burning, scalding, or forced ingestions.

In addition, there are other non-physical forms of punishment that are also cruel and degrading and thus incompatible with the Convention. These include punishment that belittles, humiliates, denigrates, scapegoats, threats, scares or ridicules the child.

Why it is being used in schools?

Additional Secretary for School Affairs at the Ministry of Education, Lalitha Egodawela said that physical punishments are being used in schools mainly to protect the prestige of the school. The school management doesn’t want to spoil the name of the school. Also, boys were identified as the group which faces a lot of physical punishments compared to girls.

“So far, no records have been found in the world to prove that physical punishments are useful in correcting children,” said Egodawela.

The personal problems of teachers and students can make teachers punish children in unexpected ways and also the relationship between students and teachers can be a reason for the physical punishments, which can end in unexpected serious situations. She also pointed out that children are not only being physically punished but they are also mentally affected due to such activity.

In 1921, physical punishments in schools were restricted by implementing several policies. However, it was not followed properly and several severe cases have been reported in the country. Later, in 2016, issuing a circular, the Government completely banned physical punishment in schools.   

Section 4 of Circular No. 12/2016 reportedly prohibits the use of corporal punishment in government schools and lists positive disciplinary measures to be used by teachers, but this would not apply to all schools and has not been confirmed in legislation.

Impacts of Corporal Punishment

Corporal punishment leads to the injury, disability, and death of thousands of children each year. Its widespread social acceptance means that a level of violence in raising children is normalised, entrenching children’s low status in society and paving the way for other forms of violence and mistreatment.

Corporal punishment affects children regardless of their age, race, sex, and social background. But it is often the most vulnerable, disabled, young, and socially marginalised children who experience higher levels of violent punishment. This has caused many children to quit schooling and has also mentally affected them.

How to Prevent It?

However, corporal punishment against children needs to be prevented in society by implementing proper laws and acts. Further, strict actions should be taken against the people who use it against children.

“Every child has the right to go to school without fear or stay home without thinking of being hit,” said Armstrong.

Meanwhile, Egodawela said that positive discipline and parenting should be given and teachers and parents should be educated on how they can take positive disciplinary actions without punishing the children.

Instead of providing physical punishments, children can be made to realise their mistakes and they can be suspended from attending classes for two weeks as a punishment. Also, if needed, the suspension period can be extended.

Further, it is also important to support child victims of corporal punishment and call for better protection of children as human rights holders.

Clinical Psychologist, National Child Protection Authority (NCPA), Lakmal Ponnamperuma said that in order to protect the child from mental impacts, proper and timely counselling should be given. Behavioural problems are the results of corporal punishments which needs to be ended.  

Treatments such as psychological education, brief interventions, counselling and trauma recovery programme should be given to the victims. 

By Eunice Ruth