When his mother asked him to collect fodder for their cattle, Yahin went to play with his friends, instead. The venue happened to be an embankment. While they were romping around, a part of the newly constructed dam was slightly damaged. Incensed, Odud Miah, a local political leader and the head of a committee in charge of building the dam, took it upon himself to teach them a lesson. He caught Yahin while the rest of the kids managed to flee. Odud Miah took Yahin's sickle, which he had brought to collect fodder, stabbed his right hand with it and severed his fingers. The doctor who treated Yahin told The Daily Star that the seven-year-old boy might lose mobility of his fingers.
Such brutal violence against a child must have shaken people to the core. Or did it?
As the report of the incident went viral on social media, people were very vocal in their outrage, as they often are in these cases. Most people who had gone through the report must have wondered how a man could inflict such cruelty on a child, but nothing erases our collective moral culpability—the fact that our outrage, short-lived as it is, has done little to root out this malpractice from society.
When the video of Rajan being beaten to death hit social media, for example, everyone was enraged. Sagar's murder, on the other hand, although similar in nature in many ways, did not elicit the same response. By that time, the public had become somewhat accustomed to the kind of child brutality that takes place everyday.
Many of us have perhaps forgotten Sabina, a minor girl working as a domestic help whose employer hit her in the face, right chest and left wrist with hot kitchen utensils, leaving her face bruised and swollen beyond recognition. Or, Aduri, another house help who was left for dead in a dustbin by her employer only to be found unconscious by passers-by in an extremely malnourished condition, with her body riddled with scars.
While emotional outbursts in the public domain in some cases helped put the issue of child abuse into the spotlight, we have failed countless children whose plight made it to the pages of newspapers and also those whose didn't.
Bangladesh Shishu Adhikar Forum (BSAF), a child-rights organisation that keeps track of child rights violations, tells us that as many as 339 children were murdered last year, not to mention numerous others who were subject to inhumane torture, violence, sexual assault, etc. The first two months of this year already saw 61 children killed. Unfortunately, it is not practically possible for us to follow up on all these cases. So, what should be our appropriate response to this societal menace?
True, the government enacted laws and policies that promise harsh punishment for torturing children, but over the years, few cases of violence have seen effective application of these laws. In fact, 64 percent of the people do not even know that there are laws prohibiting corporal punishment, according to a survey by Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST).
Even if they knew about these laws, it would not have made much difference. As for Yahin's case, everyone will agree that Odud Miah committed a crime and thus deserves punitive consequences, but in numerous recent public polls around the world, an overwhelming majority of parents—79 percent, in Bangladesh—believe that beating children is sometimes appropriate and is for their "own good." “Corporal punishment is rooted in [our] culture,” concludes a BLAST report.
This explains why parents, teachers and others do not take laws banning corporal punishment at face value. Not only that, we have made little effort to apply the law or even a serious insistence on putting it into effect as it would go against the grain of public opinion. In fact, how much force a government should exercise to prevent corporal punishment is still hotly debated around the globe.
Dr James Anderst, chief of the section on child abuse and neglect at Children's Mercy Hospitals and Clinics in Kansas, suggests that we can deal with this conundrum “the same way we get people to quit smoking. It is the same way we get people to wear seat belts. It is a combination of laws, and enforcement of those laws and also supporting people so they can be better parents.”
In other words, law is not enough. Those who believe that corporal punishment to some extent is good for children should know why it is actually the other way around. A law that aims to uproot a malpractice entrenched deep in our society should coincide with a social awareness campaign highlighting the negative aspect of this practice and why a stringent enforcement of the law is the appropriate and proportionate answer to the problem.
Nazmul Ahasan is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.