Breaking the backbone of a nation
Childhood recollections eventually start resembling the bright, vivid pages of a favourite storybook. We turn those pages someday, reminiscing about the golden times in which schools played such a notable part. These houses of knowledge quench our curious minds through the help of teachers, who most of us visualise as nothing less than a guardian angel in these stories.
But sometimes, these patrons of knowledge take the shape of vile creatures that use physical abuse as a tool to "teach manners". Corporal punishment in schools not only leaves wounds and scars, but also a deep-rooted negative effect on the psyche of children, sometimes for the rest of their lives.
Physical punishment in our social context is not limited to a light disciplinary spanking. The situation is grave as students have not only ended up in hospitals but have lost their lives in some extreme cases. Last year, an 11-year-old madrasa boy, Tauhidul Islam, was severely lashed with a stick that cost him his life because of the injuries that he sustained. This year, there was almost a recap of that, when a 12-year-old madrasa student, Nejamul Haque, had to be sent to the hospital after being mercilessly caned by his instructor. And all of this for a simple deed of mischief that could have been dismissed after a reprimand. While he battled his injuries, the teacher remained at large, and while we keep condemning such acts, these incidents keep occurring. It is grimly ironic that these men sometimes resort to such violence in the name of preaching a religion that actually advocates peace and harmony.
This practice is endemic not only in madrasas but is commonplace in schools of different mediums as well. The situation persists despite the fact that a High Court directive had already been issued in 2011 which ruled that corporal punishment breaches the constitutional rights of children. But it has been easy to circumvent this directive primarily because, without enforcement, it is disregarded and, furthermore, cultural norms allow such crimes to go on. Such frequent occurrences are a testament of the dismissive attitude of the concerned authorities towards their duties.
Public condemnation faced by these perpetrators remains in the news for a while but is soon forgotten just like every other trending issue in the country. It is almost as if this nation collectively suffers from short-term memory loss, which is why this court directive banning physical punishment was like a breath of fresh air in the face of such brutality. But as usual, due to the lack of enforcement and proper follow-up, it is rarely paid heed to.
A few days ago, around 50 students from Ideal High School in Bogra became the subject of mass humiliation when they were beaten and had their hair chopped off by two of their teachers to discipline them. According to a large-scale meta-analysis published by the American Psychological Association, there is a strong correlation between corporal punishment and child psychology. Corporal punishment can give rise to negative traits such as aggressive and anti-social behaviour, mental health problems and weak moral internalisation. The only positive upshot of it is immediate compliance which too is a result of fear. This does not actually cause children to be chastened but they just find ways to be secretive the next time they get into the said shenanigans. This means two things. First, corporal punishment can actually lead to more hostile behaviour among children. Second, the receiver of such punishment will eventually normalise these acts and may grow up to become abusers themselves.
"I was hit more severely when I was in school but I turned out just fine"—this kind of an attitude is still prevalent in our society. This reflects the "sparing the rod spoils the child" kind of mindset that we harbour where physical punishment is still perceived as an effective tool to discipline a child. But what ideal construct are we comparing this against? We may think we turned out fine, but the way violence against children has become normalised in the country goes to show the lies we tell ourselves.
A report published in the BMJ Open, a peer-reviewed open access medical journal,last year showed that countries with a complete ban on corporal punishment had less incidents of violence among young people—substantiated by statistics that "there was 31 percent less physical fighting in young men and 42 percent less physical fighting in young women." The biggest irony is right here because we already have a ruling in place that condemns the use of physical punishment. And yet 67 percent of the parents surveyed support physical punishment, according to a census conducted by Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST) in association with Save the Children in 2017. Teachers and parents alike uphold it as a technique that works. But just because some norms have become the standard does not mean they are healthy. Why should we still feel the need to humiliate or physically hurt a child to discipline them? Why should we resort to aggression in order to make them well-mannered?
This situation cannot but be looked upon with a certain degree of distaste, as even the law is failing to make some teachers question their actions, let alone instil in them a sense of empathy. This mentality has been cultivated due to age-old practices, ignorance and indifference on both the guardians' and school authorities' part. They not only endorse the occasional "educational slap", but go on to unleash their full wrath through cold-blooded beatings or creative methods of torture. Two years ago, a primary school teacher was accused of forcing her students to drink sewer water in order to teach them a lesson—a lesson taken too far all in the name of instilling manners and correcting behaviour.
This sorry state of affairs will not improve unless the ban on corporal punishment is firmly enforced in all urban and rural schools. Awareness campaigns should be conducted to disseminate information about both the repercussions of such maltreatment and the ban itself. As confirmed by the survey carried out by BLAST, 64 percent of the parents are unaware of the HC ruling—illustrating the information asymmetry. Their vigilance thus to prevent such occurrences should be of utmost priority. Academic institutions must adopt a zero-tolerance policy against corporal punishment, immediately terminate teachers who are culpable of abusing children, and cooperate with guardians to bring justice to these children. Teachers' role is said to be to help build the backbone of a nation, but those who end up breaking the bones of students instead, all to maintain classroom decorum, deserve no respect and have no place in educational institutions.
Iqra L Qamari is a student of economics at North South University and is an intern at The Daily Star.