Presentation on Corporal Punishment at the East & Southern Africa Consultation

Summary: Presentation by Peter Newell, Joint
Coordinator, Global Initiative to End All
Corporal Punishment of Children at the East
and Southern Africa regional consultation on
violence against children taking place in
Johannesburg, July 18-20 2005.
Ending corporal punishment is an issue which touches most people very
personally. Most of us were hit as children; most parents have hit their
growing children. We don't like to think badly of our parents - or of our
parenting. That makes it difficult to see this is as the fundamental issue of
equality and human rights which it is. It remains controversial in every
region. It is very good to see it high on the agenda here, because it is an
issue that so easily drops off adult agendas.

We have to move on. We cannot go on pretending that we are serious
about children's rights and child protection while we try to build child
protection systems alongside legal, state-authorised and deliberate
violence against children in the family, in schools and other institutions and
penal systems.

It is completely wrong and upside down that children should have had to
wait until last for equal protection from assault. Some people
respond: “But children are different”. Yes – but their differences – their
fragility and developmental state, their smallness and dependent status,
the special difficulties they face in seeking help – none of these justifies
less legal protection from violence.

Yes – moving on from corporal punishment is a challenge – in my country
as well as yours. My own country – the UK – has a particular responsibility
for spreading corporal punishment around through colonisation, slavery,
military occupation and some missionary teaching. More than 70 countries
including many in this region, have adopted the ancient English common
law defence of “reasonable chastisement”. Other colonial powers have had
similar influences. No culture or state should suggest it “owns” corporal
punishment of children; now all states have an immediate human rights
obligation to disown it, as Professor Pinheiro, the Independent Expert
leading the UN Secretary General’s Study, has highlighted.

Some, in my country and yours, produce religious justifications for corporal
punishment, seeing it as not just a right but a duty. But there are now
respected leaders in all the major faiths who strongly challenge the idea
that religious texts justify this violence against children. All of us have
freedom of religious belief, but when it comes to practicing our religion, we
have to respect the fundamental rights of others, including their right to
respect for human dignity and physical integrity. These are difficult issues,
but they have to be resolved and cannot remain hidden, and we should
expect leadership now from the churches.

Ending corporal punishment is not an alternative to focussing on the
extreme forms of violence which are already universally condemned –
commercial sexual exploitation, trafficking and so on. This issue is difficult
because of the more or less universal personal dimension. It has to be a
priority precisely because it gets to the root of how we regard children.
There is no more symbolic indication of the low status of children in my
state and in yours, than the persisting acceptance of corporal punishment.

So far, globally, only about 17 states have completely prohibited all
corporal punishment, with six or seven more committed to do so. About 52
million of the world’s 2195 million children live in countries where the law
gives them the same protection as adults from being hit, in their homes
and everywhere else. In schools, in this region half the states have
prohibited corporal punishment; globally 110 states have prohibited and
78 have not fully prohibited. 94 states have prohibited in their penal
systems for young offenders, leaving 75 still allowing whipping or caning of
young people either as a sentence of the courts or a punishment within
penal institutions, or both, including at least 10 in this region.

All states in this region except Somalia, in common with 192 around the
world, have accepted the Convention on the Rights of the Child; Somalia
has signed but not yet ratified. The Committee on the Rights of the Child
has highlighted for a decade now that the Convention requires prohibition
of all corporal punishment, including in the family, linked to public education
and awareness-raising of children’s right to protection. The Chair of the
Committee, Jaap Doek, confirms its clear message in a foreword to the
report the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children is
circulating at this consultation. UNESCO has also published a Handbook –
Eliminating Corporal Punishment – the way forward to constructive child
discipline. This details the relevant human rights standards, summarises
the research evidence against corporal punishment and gives proposals for
positive discipline without violence and humiliation.

We have to be clear about the purpose of law reform on this issue. The
report explains it. In relation to prohibiting parental corporal punishment,
the first purpose is to send a clear message, to provide the only safe basis
for child protection and for the promotion of positive, non-violent forms of
child-rearing. Prosecuting more parents is most unlikely to be in their
children’s interests, so there needs to be very clear guidance to
accompany law reform. The first purpose of any good law must be
educational. But it is no good suggesting that we should just start with
education, and leave law reform for the moment. A lot of people have been
saying it is not a good idea to hit or beat children for years, but it makes
little impact while the law and the statements of politicians say the
opposite. We need clear law, linked to awareness-raising of the law and of
children's rights to protection, as well as promotion of non-violent forms of

There are now strong advocates for law reform in all states - quite a
number of organisations in this region, including human rights
commissions, have already endorsed our report and recommendations and
I hope more will do so.

At the previous eight Regional Consultations for the UN Secretary General’s
Study, clear recommendations to prohibit all corporal punishment, including
in the family, have been adopted. But I still hear government officials and
NGOs and others making more excuses: “We must wait until there is more
support for parents; more training for teachers; smaller classes. Let’s
educate first and then change the law…” and so on. From children’s
perspective this is intolerable. From the perspective of international human
rights law it is illegal. Why should children wait? Would we wait to prohibit
violence against women until we can provide full employment and universal
anger management classes for men?

Changing the law is not in itself expensive and it send a strong and
essential educational message. If governments find it difficult and
controversial still, then they must point to their clear human rights
obligations and tell their Parliaments and the public: “We have to do it; we
have no alternative!” They should also point to the research that shows
how often children are being hit, and to the studies with children
themselves that tell us how upsetting and harmful children find it. They
should emphasise that prohibiting corporal punishment is not providing
some special protection for children; it is simply extending to children equal
protection from assault.

Of course, changing the law on its own, without public education and
awareness-raising, will not achieve the universal change in attitudes and
practice which is needed. But governments should not see the education
process as a completely new, separate and therefore very expensive
exercise. To achieve widespread and speedy change in attitudes, clear
messages must be built into all the points of contact with future parents
and parents – in pre-natal and post-natal care, at birth registration,
immunisations, routine health checks and visits, pre-schooling, school
entry, the school curriculum and so on. And into the initial and in-service
training of all those who work with and for families and children.

NGOs and UNICEF and some governments have pioneered materials and
programmes which need to be universalised. The process needs to be
permanent and sustainable and government-led.

No more excuses: this UN Study provides the opportunity to move quickly
on, to put in the past the idea that states should authorise violence
against children and instead focus on giving priority to ending all violence
against children.
Owner: Peter Newell


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