The recent spate of incidents involving teachers and headmasters punishing school children and even physically assaulting them has once again renewed the debate over corporal punishment, which is in fact not supposed to exist in Sri Lanka.
“Corporal punishment” literally means “corporal punishment” and is often understood as the caning or other form of physical aggression against a student by a teacher. According to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, corporal or physical punishment means any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort.
It is mainly about hitting (slapping, slapping, spanking) children, with the hand or with a whip, a stick, a belt, a shoe, a wooden spoon and others. It may also involve kicking, shaking or throwing children, scratching, pinching, biting, hair pulling or hitting ears, burning, scalding or ingesting strength.
In addition, there are other forms of non-physical punishment which are also cruel and degrading and therefore incompatible with the Convention. These include punishments that demean, humiliate, denigrate, scapegoat, threaten, frighten or ridicule the child.
Corporal punishment is by no means unique to Sri Lanka and one can read on the internet many first-hand accounts written by British school children and others of the horrors of the cane and physical assault. In fact, research suggests that approximately 30% of the world’s school population may be subject to these forms of punishment. But sometimes students fight back – legally – and win.
On February 12, 2021, in a landmark judgment, the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka condemned the use of corporal punishment on children in schools. The case was brought to the Supreme Court by a 15-year-old student and his parents against the teachers and authorities of a public school.
The student had been slapped across the face by one of the teachers, resulting in permanent hearing impairment. The plaintiffs argued that the teacher violated Article 11 of the Sri Lankan Constitution which prohibits torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment.
The Court held that the teacher’s use of corporal punishment violated the Constitution. It ordered the payment of compensation to the pupil by the teacher and the State. Using clear and unequivocal arguments against corporal punishment of children, the Supreme Court said: Although corporal punishment does not in itself constitute torture in this case, the practice of inflicting physical or mental punishment that does not fails to take into account the inherent dignity of a child amounts to inhuman or degrading punishment”.
Five years of accelerated action
A 2016 Ministry of Education circular reportedly banned the use of corporal punishment in public schools, but this does not apply to all schools and has not been confirmed in legislation. Since 2017, Sri Lanka has been a pioneer country with the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children. This commits the government to three to five years of accelerated action towards achieving target 16.2 of the Sustainable Development Goals. In its report to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2017, the Sri Lankan government pledged to reform its laws to prohibit corporal punishment in all settings.
“Spare the rod and spoil the child” is an old adage that indicates that children should be punished in some way for any “offence” they may commit at home or at school. This saying implies that children who go unpunished when committing a wrongdoing could turn into adults who will be inconvenient to society. However, this axiom completely ignores the perspective of the child – he or she may experience trauma from these episodes well into adulthood. They might not become good citizens after all thanks to the cane.
Indeed, for most children, corporal punishment begins at home, where overly strict parents wield the rod for even a slight mistake by a child. There have been many cases where children have been brutally attacked at home and some children have even died. School could be even worse for some children who are frequently targeted by teachers and principals for punishment for a number of ‘offences’ ranging from not doing their homework to not wearing uniform properly .
I myself had been a victim of the cane several times at school, but fortunately not at home. Now I can’t remember most of the “infractions” I may have committed, except on two occasions the whole class was punished because no one showed up to “betray” the original culprit. I was told this was a fairly common experience for many who had attended boys’ schools. Corporal punishment occurs most often in boys’ schools and rarely in girls’ schools, although many who came from mixed schools told me that only boys in those schools received the cane. Even in all-boys schools, A/L students are very rarely punished with the cane and only the youngest students usually receive this form of punishment.
Looking back, I can’t really say if I became a better person after getting the cane. Instead, I personally know of many cases where children subjected to such punishments became even more aggressive, becoming totally socially inappropriate. In my case (and that of many others), I believe that a stern warning or other punishment such as kneeling (another form of physical punishment, but much more bearable) or some sort of “community service “like sweeping the classroom/school compound might have sufficed instead of the cane. Ultimately, the wise counsel of a teacher could go a long way in shaping a better citizen.
The debate over corporal punishment has been renewed in Sri Lanka due to a plethora of recent incidents, the most prominent of which was the assault of a group of very young pupils by a headmaster for theft and the “treatment by electroshock” that followed. administered to children by the local police station at the request of the director. Admittedly, this is an extreme case, but the episode perfectly illustrates the depravity of certain teachers and principals who seem to derive a kind of sadistic pleasure from subjecting their proteges to harsh punishments that are not even meted out to adults.
In another case, a teacher assaulted a student for not coming to his private lesson after school hours. Last year, a student at a major school in Veyangoda was hit with a waste pipe by a teacher, injuring the student. In another case, a teacher threatened a student for reporting an act of corporal punishment.
There are other examples of teachers physically and even sexually attacking students. These are all odious behaviors and practices that our educational authorities must in no case tolerate. Yet it is only rarely that these teachers are sanctioned or punished by the judicial system. One such case has been highlighted in this article.
The United Nations (UN) has stressed the need to end all forms of corporal punishment at home and at school. According to the UN, the main goals for ending corporal punishment are: all governments must act to ban and eliminate corporal punishment by 2030, organizations and individuals from all contexts and sectors must come together to call to urgent action to end corporal punishment, to commit to taking steps towards this goal, and to hear children’s voices and their right to equal protection from violence.
UNICEF Child Protection Chief Miranda Armstrong said hitting or punishing children will not change anything and will affect the child negatively. This is a view unequivocally shared by many child psychologists. Ironically, many countries have taken tough action on violence against women, but such laws have not been introduced or implemented to end corporal punishment in schools, even against female students.
Corporal punishment causes injury, disability and death to thousands of children worldwide every year. Its widespread social acceptance means that a level of violence at home and at school in childrearing is normalized, entrenching children’s lower status in society and paving the way for other forms of violence and abuse. abuse. Corporal punishment affects children regardless of their age, race, gender and social background.
But it is often the most vulnerable, differently abled, young and socially marginalized children who experience higher levels of violent punishment. This caused many children to drop out of school completely before they even completed higher grades and also affected them mentally. Unfortunately, many incidents of corporal punishment go unreported because most students smile and bear it, thinking it is part of school life.
Government, education authorities and the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) must play a greater role in ending the scourge of corporal punishment. There is already an NCPA hotline to report any form of child abuse and invariably corporal punishment can also be handled in the same way.
Thus, the helpline should also respond to such complaints from students and their parents.
Teachers also need to be made aware of alternative means of “correcting” students without necessarily resorting to corporal punishment. The Ministry of Education, in collaboration with lawyers, educators and child psychologists, should conduct awareness programs for teachers in this regard.
Suspending classes, even for a few days, has been shown to be a good deterrent against unruly student behavior inside and outside the classroom. As mentioned earlier, community service is another viable alternative. Further, there are no mechanisms here to counsel students who may be suffering from the trauma induced by corporal punishment. Such mechanisms should be put in place without delay. All possible measures must be taken to end the practice of corporal punishment in our schools.