Not just law, we need social change to end corporal punishment
Corporal punishment is defined as any punishment in which physical force is used with the intent to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light. Degrading and humiliating punishment also falls under this definition. Corporal punishment violates not just children's right to freedom from all violence, but also their rights to health, development and education.
In November 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) published "Corporal Punishment and Health," where it called for the end of this practice around the world. The WHO fact sheet highlighted that a large body of research had established links between corporal punishment and a wide range of negative outcomes—both immediate and long-term. Some of those are "direct physical harm, sometimes resulting in severe damage, long-term disability or death; mental ill health, including behavioural and anxiety disorders, depression, hopelessness, low self-esteem, self-harm and suicide attempts, alcohol and drug dependency, hostility and emotional instability, which continue into adulthood." Impaired cognitive and socio-emotional development; damage to education, including school dropout and lower academic and occupational success; increased antisocial behaviour; increased aggression in children; adult perpetration of violent, antisocial and criminal behaviour; indirect physical harm, including developing cancer, alcohol-related problems, migraine, cardiovascular disease, arthritis and obesity that continue into adulthood; and damaged family relationships are also some of the outcomes, according to WHO.
Even though we know that corporal punishment is so harmful for children, it still remains in practice around the world. Only 63 countries have enacted laws banning corporal punishment of children in all settings: homes, schools, workplaces, institutions, alternative care arrangements, etc. A whopping 87 percent of the world's children are not protected from corporal punishment by law; this includes Bangladeshi children, too.
Today, January 13, marks the 11th anniversary of the High Court banning corporal punishment in educational settings, including schools and madrasas, in Bangladesh. The Ministry of Education also issued a circular and guidelines that prohibit corporal punishment in educational institutions. Yet, corporal punishment is still pervasive in schools and madrasas due to weak monitoring and our general acceptance of this practice. Not just in educational settings, but children are subjected to corporal punishment at home, in institutions and workplaces as well. According to the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey, 2019, carried out by Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics and Unicef, 89 percent of children (1-14 years) in Bangladesh experienced violent discipline in the past month of the survey. Meanwhile, 35 percent of parents or caregivers expressed that corporal punishment was necessary to discipline children.
Corporal punishment makes children feel sad, afraid, ashamed, and guilty. When children are punished by parents, caregivers and teachers—people whom they love and trust the most—they learn to accept violence in personal relationships, too, and may become perpetrators or victims of violence later in adulthood.
In Bangladesh, people have ample excuses for corporal punishment. For example, some say many parents are raising their children in challenging conditions, and teachers are often under stress from overcrowding and lack of resources, so, they often use corporal punishment. We never justify hitting an adult even when we are frustrated. Why should that be acceptable in the case of children? In many homes and institutions, adults may be facing difficulties, but taking their frustration out on children by hitting and humiliating them can never be acceptable.
Despite popular belief, corporal punishment is ineffective as a technique to teach and discipline children. When faced with punishment, children may comply with the instructions given by their parents or teachers in the short term, without understanding why something should be done or avoided. Instead of punishment, parents should give age-appropriate guidance to their children with care and love, which will help the children in their learning and development. Teachers should apply positive discipline techniques to have their students listen to them.
Corporal punishment is preventable through multisectoral approaches, which include law reform, changing harmful norms around child-rearing and disciplining, parent and caregiver support, etc. Research shows that law reform has 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.
Ending corporal punishment is a human rights imperative, and essential if the world is to meet the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) #16.2 to end all violence against children by 2030. Prohibition and elimination of corporal punishment is also a low-cost effective public health measure, as this contributes to prevention of domestic violence and mental illness, and supports education and developmental outcomes for children.
The ban on corporal punishment in educational settings should be implemented in the following ways: 1) All teachers, parents, community members and students should be made aware that corporal punishment is banned in educational settings; 2) Teachers' code of conduct should clearly mention that they cannot use corporal punishment against students. Disciplinary actions should be taken against teachers who do so; 3) School inspection check-list should include compliance with corporal punishment ban; and 4) School management committees should discuss and deal with issues related to corporal punishment in their meetings. This issue should also be in the regular agenda of coordination meetings of education officers and head teachers at district and upazila levels to assess the situations and take actions accordingly.
To end corporal punishment in all settings in Bangladesh, these are what should be done: 1) A new law should be enacted prohibiting corporal punishment of children in all settings; 2) Law reform must be linked to comprehensive awareness-raising as well as developing capacity on positive, non-violent forms of parenting and teaching methods. Media can play an important role in changing social norms so that parents, teachers, and all adults treat children with respect and dignity; 3) Messages on positive discipline should be embedded into the training of all those who work with or for children and families, as well as in health, education, and social services.
Laila Khondkar is an international development worker.