Spare the rod
save the child

Recent measures to check corporal punishment should send out a strong signal to schoolteachers, principals and others that they have to take up positive methods to discipline children, writes Usha Rai

FOR three years, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), the Education Department of the Ministry of Human Resource Development and UNICEF have voiced their concern on the mounting violence on children in the form of corporal punishment. All forms of corporal punishment are a breach of fundamental rights of the child and a crime. It is a crime that is committed not just by schoolteachers, principals, remand homes but also by parents, who are short-tempered and resort to slapping a child, twisting her/his arms and even burning the fingers when the child does not fall in line — kowtowing to the authorities.

One of the first acts of the NCPCR in August, 2007, was banning corporal punishment because it impinged on the child’s dignity and safety in public institutions. Its guidelines were put up in schools and adequately publicised by the NCERT and state governments. In fact, 16 states banned corporal punishment but reports of violence against children continued to trickle in. Then, before the start of the academic session in 2009, additional guidelines were sent to district collectors/magistrates/deputy commissioners and secretaries of school education in the states to ensure that violence against children was stopped. Despite all these warnings and steps taken by the NCPCR, yet another child committed suicide in Kolkata.

The most commonly reported punishment is being slapped and kicked (63.7 per cent), followed by beating with a stave or stick (31.3 per cent)
The most commonly reported punishment is being slapped and kicked (63.7 per cent), followed by beating with a stave or stick (31.3 per cent) Photos: Pradeep Tewari

Children’s concerns

What makes violence unbearable is the fact that children consider the school like their second home and teachers like their parents, says 14-year-old Tina (name changed), a student of a private school in Delhi. She says the "razor-sharp tongues of teachers" affect adolescent children to such an extent that they even consider committing suicide. When a teacher berates a student, saying he/she is `good for nothing’ or "should be sent to a special school" or that ‘teachers are allergic to a child’s face’, the student may not break down in front of the class, but it haunts him/her for weeks and months because it undermines the self-esteem and self-worth.

Physical and mental abuse forced 10-year-old Shamu (name changed) to run away from a government institution. Narrating his tale of horror, Shamu says he was asked to buy alcohol for the caretakers and if he refused to do so, he was subjected to physical abuse. On one occasion, he was made to stand on the terrace in winter without clothes. In fact, children were often asked to strip, he said. Once he heard a boy being asked to take off his pants and he was asked to stay back in the room with the caretaker. Petrified of what was going on, Shamu ran away from the scene. Unable to take the constant abuse, he finally ran away from the institution.

It is not just in government institutions that corporal punishment exists. It is also an integral part of government schools, says Raj (name changed), 14, a student of Class VII in an MCD school and an active member of Badte Kadam, a federation of street and working children. He was part of a 52-member children’s team, which held informal discussions with other children to understand the corporal punishment experienced by them. Sharing some of the common forms of corporal punishment experienced by children, he said boys were beaten up more often than girls. In one instance, the teacher hit the eye of the student and although he took him to the doctor, the child lost his eyesight.

He said that teachers often call girls home under the pretext of tuitions and make them do the housework. Raj said that some teachers allowed girls to pass their examinations only after sexually exploiting them. Teachers tried to humiliate weak students by making them sit at the back of the classroom. All these forms of punishment often forced the child to run away from school, Raj said.

So, the arrest of the principal and four senior teachers of the elite La Martiniere School of Kolkata for caning Class VIII student Rouvanjit Rawla, allegedly leading to his suicide a week later in February 2010, has set a precedent. It should send out a strong signal to schoolteachers, principals and others responsible for the well-being of children that they have to first understand the child and then find other appropriate methods to discipline him. Gone are the days of ‘spoiling the rod and sparing the child.’

In fact, at a public hearing on corporal punishment held by the NCPCR in Tamil Nadu early in 2008, Vasanti Devi, former chairperson of the State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, pointed out that 91 schoolchildren in Tamil Nadu had committed suicide in a five-year span because of physical, mental and sexual harassment. The NCPCR had asked for the public hearing because it had received the highest number of complaints from that state. The brutalities ranged from giving electric shocks, physical and sexual abuse, asking children to strip, and discrimination based on caste, resulting in children committing suicide. These scars inflicted in childhood cannot be healed and affect the child’s abilities as well as attitudes life long, says Shantha Sinha, chairperson of the NCPCR. Children want to be treated with respect. But many of them are unable to gather the courage to speak up or complain.

In fact, according to a nationwide study on child abuse in India by the Ministry of Women and Child Development in 2007, two out of three school-going children in India were physically abused, with boys the most likely target. A high prevalence of corporal punishment was found in all settings — homes, schools, institutions and even on the street. The study showed that corporal punishment took place in every district of the country and punishment as a tool to discipline children was deeply ingrained in both government and private schoolteachers. But most children did not report the abuse to anyone, continuing to suffer in silence.

The most commonly reported punishment was being slapped and kicked (63.7 per cent), followed by being beaten with a stave or stick (31.3 per cent) and being pushed, shaken etc (5 per cent). For many, the hurt resulted in serious physical injury, swelling or bleeding.

Peter Newell, coordinator of the global initiative to end all forms of corporal punishment of children, was in Delhi in February last year at the invitation of UNICEF and spoke on ‘the human rights imperative to eliminate and prohibit all forms of corporal punishment.’ He said corporal punishment killed and maimed countless children and needs to be challenged, and not just as a child protection issue. For long, people, including those responsible for the protection of children, have tried to keep child cruelty or abuse and corporal punishment in two separate boxes. But all physical abuse of children administered in the context of punishment or control is corporal punishment, he points out. Maybe, just a tiny minority of perpetrators are psychotic and don’t have any punitive motive for assaulting their children. So, ending corporal punishment is an essential strategy for ending all forms of violence against children.

We, in India, have drawn a lot from the British system of education – especially in the elite private schools. England in its colonial past, along with other colonial powers, had a lot to do with spreading and institutionalising corporal punishment, in the context of slavery and military occupation, in the development of school and penal systems, and through some missionary teachings. At least 70 countries have adopted the English common law of "reasonable chastisement," Newell said.

Research on the potential effects of corporal punishment reveal that it could lead to the development of violent attitudes and actions in childhood and adult life. It could result in low self-esteem, depression, delinquency — all traits that no parent or society want for their children. Challenging and ending adults’ punitive violence against children is central to the Convention on the Rights of Children (CRC). The Committee on the Rights of Children, the monitoring body of the CRC, had in 2000 and again in 2004 reminded India to prohibit corporal punishment. India’s Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, endorsed by Parliament earlier this year, too, bans corporal punishment.

Prof Krishna Kumar, the well-known educationist, who was director of NCERT till recently, says the council’s nationwide survey of emotional experiences in a classroom of 1100 children, revealed that those who were frequently scolded developed poor learning abilities. Poor classroom environment, use of foul language and beating impacted a student’s learning ability, the survey found.

The survey conducted in Delhi, Ajmer, Bhopal, Shillong and Bengaluru brought to light disturbing trends of children fearing schools because of the physical and mental abuse inflicted on them. Owing to the devaluation of the teaching profession, Prof Kumar said, the right people who valued these important ingredients of education were not being attracted to this field.

Specialist speak

Dr Samir Hasan Dalwai, director, Child Development Centre, Mumbai, says that the impact of a crime committed on a child is greater than the one committed on an adult because the former is going through a process of development. He points out that punishment leads to fear and aggression and behavioural changes -- reflected in thumb sucking, nail biting, regressive behaviour, stuttering, stammering and lack of confidence and self-esteem.

Psychologists feel that disciplining a child should not mean physical violence, as it affects
Psychologists feel that disciplining a child should not mean physical violence, as it affects learning ability and leads to the development of fear or aggression

Dr Dalwai, who is also a paediatrician and child psychologist, says there is an increase in the ‘shaken baby’ syndrome, where the young child is physically abused at home. He cites a case in which a nine-month-old infant was brought to his clinic with burn marks on the back of the hand. It was obvious that the child had been deliberately burnt as a punishment for something he had done.

Disciplining the child should not mean physical violence. Instead of physical punishment, there should be ‘positive disciplining’. The child needs to be told that what he has done is wrong and why, says Dr Dalwai. He suggests that instead of focussing on "obedience and disobedience", it would be better to try "cooperation". He says if parents and teachers try to make children think for themselves and look at it not as a failure to obey, but as a failure to understand, then there would be no need for punishment.