Accelerating the universal prohibition of corporal punishment in educational settings

By Mehnaz Akber Aziz, Member of the National Assembly of Pakistan, one of just eight women out of 342 directly elected members, and Joseph Nhan-O’Reilly, Executive Director, International Parliamentary Network for Education (IPNEd)

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Physical violence or the prospect of it affects children in every country, community and culture around the world. Sadly, much of that violence occurs in educational settings at the hands of teachers and caregivers. Corporal punishment by school staff is not the only form of violence that children in educational settings are subject to, but it is a particularly egregious and harmful one.

Corporal punishment has serious negative impacts for children

As well as violating children’s rights, overwhelming evidence shows that the use of corporal punishment has serious negative impacts on children, including their educational achievements. A recent study found that the brains of children who had been spanked were altered in the regions that regulate emotional responses, the same regions that change in children who had experienced sexual abuse, physical violence or psychological maltreatment, typically viewed as ‘worse’ than spanking. 

Multiple studies demonstrate that the use of corporal punishment in schools can impede learning and contribute to school drop-out. Corporal punishment also undermines positive teacher-child relationships and far from teaching children to behave well; it teaches them that violence is an acceptable way to resolve conflict.

The consequences of physical violence against children have consequences well beyond the school gates. Research has found adults who have experienced corporal punishment in childhood have been found more likely to accept or experience violence in later life, including intimate partner violence, either as a victim or perpetrator, and be involved in other violent and criminal behaviour.

Progress is possible

Copyright: UNESCO/Amina Sayeed

The recent passage of legislation in Pakistan’s National Assembly, which banned corporal punishment in religious, government and private institutions in the Islamabad Capital Territory is a case in point. The hope is that it will be the law reform domino, whose fall leads to the adoption of similar laws right across Pakistan.

Only a month ago, the Republic of Korea became the latest country to legislate to ban corporal punishment against children in all settings, which includes schools and homes. This is not just a critically important step for Korean children, it is also a good example to other countries around the world who haven’t yet legislated to protect their children.

Law reform has a central role to play in transforming school culture to protect children from corporal punishment and its negative effects. Fortunately, 132 countries have legislated to prohibit corporal punishment in their schools. However, 34 countries have policies against its use which are not yet backed by legislation and another 30 have neither policy or law. 

Some 30 years after the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, as a network of parliamentarians committed to advancing children’s right to education, IPNEd believes that prohibiting corporal punishment in law and eliminating it in practice in every country of the world and in all educational settings is an urgent priority.

Today, on the International Day to End Corporal Punishment of Children, we pledge to support legislators in the 64 states where corporal punishment at school remains lawful to draft, pass and implement legislation to prohibit the practice. We will work with individual legislators, help build cross party support in parliaments, promote existing legislation, share good practice and facilitate peer to peer exchange.

Our ultimate aim is that laws protect students against corporal punishment and that schools free of violence are regarded as prerequisite to the achievement of the internationally agreed goal of quality, inclusive education for all, SDG 4.

Laws must lead to implementation

Credit: Gem Report/Magali Courage

Laws on their own will not be enough. To be effective, the prohibition of corporal punishment in schools requires a comprehensive range of measures to create a culture of teaching and learning that does not rely on violence. The passage of laws should therefore lay the ground for the implementation of national strategies which should include:

• Widespread and sustained public education and accessible awareness-raising campaigns that clearly communicate the intent of the law.
• Clear direction and training for teachers and other staff on the law, equipping them with alternative, positive and non-violent disciplinary strategies.
• Independent reporting procedures, like child helplines, for children, staff and other adults, ensuring protection for those who report the use of corporal punishment.
• A strategy to monitor the effectiveness of the law, and compliance with prohibition through regular public opinion surveys, including consultations with children.

Parliamentarians have an important role to play in monitoring the implementation of new laws and helping ensure that measures like the ones set out above have the funding and political support to be implemented effectively.

School should be a place of hope and opportunity, where children are safe to learn and develop the skills and experiences they need to thrive. Corporal punishment is incompatible with that vision. In 2011 the Bangladesh Supreme Court ruled “There cannot be any doubt that corporal punishment is detrimental to children’s well-being and has serious physical, psychological and emotional effects, as well as causing truancy and dropping out of school. This, in turn, exacerbates the cycle of illiteracy and poverty.”

We agree. Making the physical and degrading punishment of children in education settings unlawful everywhere is central to IPNEd’s efforts to tackle illiteracy and poverty.

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