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Corporal punishment: National and international perspectives

cp reportThe purpose of the report is to provide relevant information on corporal punishment to policy-makers, stakeholders and other interested parties. It discusses research findings on the impact of corporal punishment, the international and national framework which surrounds corporal punishment and public opinion on the issue in Namibia – particularly from children. It presents new data on the opinions of Namibian children based on responses from over 2000 children collected as part of the public consultation process around Namibia’s Child Care and Protection Bill. The monograph also reports how a range of countries have addressed the issue of corporal punishment in their legal systems, to provide insight into options for addressing the issue of corporal punishment in Namibia. Finally the monograph provides a chapter on alternatives to corporal punishment.

Contents of the report:

  • The effects of corporal punishment
  • Responding to defences of corporal punishment
  • Corporal punishment in Namibia
  • International standards
  • Current Namibian law
  • Examples from other countries
  • Promotion of alternatives to corporal punishment
  • Conclusion and recommendations.

The effects of corporal punishment
Advocates of corporal punishment argue that it is an effective and innocuous means of disciplining children, but a number of empirical studies suggest otherwise. Research in various countries suggests that the use of corporal punishment is connected with various problems – including increased aggression, poor mental health, poor academic achievement and a poor relationship with parents. Studies also suggest that parents may increase the amount of force used over time until it becomes physical abuse. The use of corporal punishment on children has also been associated with adolescent depression, and with the use of violence by the children when they become adults. Although corporal punishment does often result in immediate compliance, it has been shown to be a poor method for teaching children to understand the difference between right and wrong or to control their own actions. Of course, such studies have inherent limitations; since corporal punishment has been shown to be harmful, it would not be ethical to design a study involving one group of children who receive corporal punishment and another group who do not.

Responding to defences of corporal punishment
Various defences of punishment are put forward, including religious beliefs and cultural traditions. This chapter advances some alternative views, particularly from the Christian perspective.  For example, the phrase “spare the rod and spoil the child” is often incorrectly attributed to the Bible but actually comes from a poem written by Samuel Butler in the 1660s. The proverb “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes” does appear in the Bible, but there are differing interpretations of what is meant by the Hebrew word for rod (“shebet”).  It can refer to a king’s sceptre (a sign of authority) or a shepherd’s staff (a tool used to guide and direct sheep). Accordingly, some Biblical commentators suggest that the quoted verses from Proverbs refer to the assertion of parental authority over a child rather than literal “beatings with a stick”.

It may also be interesting to some to learn that various international church groupings and religious leaders have taken strong stances against the use of corporal punishment, including the Churches Network for Non-Violence, the World Conference of Religions for Peace, the South African Council of Churches and the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference. For example, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has spoken out strongly in support of the global campaign to end corporal punishment against children, saying:
Millions of the world’s children still suffer from humiliating acts of violence and these violations of their rights as human beings can have serious and lifelong effects. Violence begets violence and we shall reap a whirlwind. Children can be disciplined without violence that instils fear and misery, and I look forward to church communities working in solidarity with others… to make further progress towards ending all forms of violence against children. If we really want a peaceful and compassionate world, we need to build communities of trust where all children are respected, where homes and schools are safe places to be and where discipline is taught by example. May God give us grace to love our children as He loves them and may their trust in us lead them to trust in Him.

Corporal punishment in Namibia
There is a perception that corporal punishment of children is popular in Namibia, but the information presented in this report shows that public views are somewhat more complex.

A recent study carried out in eight regions of Namibia found that the people surveyed believed that there were many circumstances which justified hitting children – but at the same time, more than half of those surveyed said that physical punishment is not a necessary part of child-rearing.

Corporal punishment was discussed as part of the extensive consultation process conducted by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare in 2009, to guide the revision of a preliminary draft of the Child Care and Protection Bill. The topic inspired substantial debate at all stages of the consultation process. Overall, the feedback received from the public supported the use of alternative forms of discipline and called for a reduction in the levels of corporal punishment in Namibia.Children who were consulted during this process overwhelmingly recommended that parents should rather explain what the child has done wrong and use other forms of discipline, such as taking away privileges.

A substantial amount of feedback (over 2000 comments) on corporal punishment was compiled specifically for the current report. This input was collected from discussions facilitated by the Ombetja Yehinga Organisation with learners and out-of-school youth in the Kunene Region. The children’s comments provide rich and detailed information.  Some children spoke about how they are beaten, indicatingthat beatings on the hands, buttocks and around the head are common, along with the use of sticks to beat children.  Common reasons for beating were failure at school or failure to help with chores around the home.  The most revealing comments from the children concerned how they feel about being beaten – they reported anger, unhappiness and even thoughts of committing suicide.  Many believe that corporal punishment leads to increased aggression by children, and many gave examples of alternatives to corporal punishment that parents and teachers could use.

But there is no consensus on the issue amongst parents and teachers.  Interestingly, one learner told the Legal Assistance Centre, “My parents said they beat me because they love me”, whilst another learner said “My father said he can’t beat me because they love me”.

International standards
The clearest international statement on corporal punishment of children is contained in Article 19 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which requires that State Parties take “all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation including sexual abuse, while in the
care of parent(s), legal guardian(s), or any other person who has the care of the child”.

The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child contains similar although somewhat less detailed provisions. It requires that states take legislative measures to protect children from all forms of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment (Articles 16 and 17) and ensure that discipline of children, whether at home or in schools, respects their human dignity (Articles 11 and 20).

The Committee which monitors the Convention on the Rights of the Child has stated that addressing the widespread acceptance of corporal punishment of children and eliminating it, in the family, schools and other settings is “a key strategy for reducing and preventing all forms of violence in societies”.

Current Namibian law
The legal position on corporal punishment in Namibia centres around Article 8 of the Namibian Constitution, which protects human dignity and prohibits “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.

Shortly after Independence, the Namibian Supreme Court found that Article 8(1) of the Namibian Constitution prohibits corporal punishment by any “organ of state”, which includes corporal punishment in government schools and as a punishment for adult or juvenile criminal offenders. This ruling was codified in section 56(1) of the Education Act of 2001 which makes it a form of misconduct for a teacher or other employee at any school or hostel – including both government schools and private schools – to impose or administer corporal punishment

The draft Child Care and Protection Bill which is currently under discussion would follow suit, by providing that parents or anyone else with control of a child must respect the child’s Constitutional right to dignity. The current draft stops short of explicitly outlawing corporal punishment in the home, since our courts have not yet examined it in this context; it draws on the language of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, and attempts to provide a basis for allowing law and practice to evolve towards greater respect and protection for children’s dignity in the administration of discipline. The draft bill goes further when it comes to alternative care, by unequivocally forbidding anyone to administer corporal punishment to a child at places of safety, places of care (such as crèches or a day care centres), early childhood development centres or residential care facilities for children. These institutions would all be registered and monitored by the government in terms of the forthcoming law, so it appears that the Supreme Court judgment would apply in those contexts.

Examples from other countries
In 1979, Sweden became the first country to explicitly prohibit all corporal punishment and other humiliating treatment of children. Only six countries had completely prohibited corporal punishment by 1996, but by 2009 this number had risen to include 26 countries. Other countries have legislation in progress, and some have placed restrictions on corporal punishment that stop short of a total ban. As of August 2010, at least 31 countries had explicitly forbidden the use of corporal punishment in the home.

The draft gives particular attention to legal developments in Africa.  Ghana, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Botswana all have provisions which emphasise the child’s right to dignity, in a manner which is broadly similar to the provision which has been proposed for inclusion in Namibia’s Child Care and Protection Bill.  In Kenya, a draft Constitution which includes the right of every person “not to be subjected to corporal punishment” was reportedly approved by a national referendum in August 2010. And in July 2010, Tunisia became the first African state to ban corporal punishment of children in all settings.
Promotion of alternatives to corporal punishment
A number of activities to promote alternatives to corporal punishment have been implemented in Namibia.Following the ban on corporal punishment in schools in 1991, the Ministry of Education and Culture published a training manual on alternatives to corporal punishment and two booklets for teachers containing ideas for alternatives. Many of the same suggestions can be used by parents.

The Legal Assistance Centre has produced a range of materials to help educate the public about alternatives to corporal punishment – including a 45-minute film, two comics, a poster and two short training guides. The Legal Assistance Centre also conducts workshops aimed at educating community members about alternatives to corporal punishment.

As detailed in the report, LifeLine/ChildLine and PEACE Centre have also been active in this area, particularly around the counselling of children and families.

Read the report for more information