Violence against children has become an important issue at national and international levels. In Guyana, we are glacially moving towards amending our domestic laws to comply with our obligations under Article19.1 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which we have ratified. This demands protection of the child, irrespective of gender, 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 parents, legal guardians or any other person who has the care of the child. This obviously includes our schools.
We are therefore not too certain what the present exercise of conducting ‘public consultations’ by the Ministry of Education (MoA) on corporal punishment in schools is intended to achieve. Are we considering abrogating our agreement to the UNCRC? Or are we simply using the occasion to have parents become aware of our international obligations? What we find mind boggling is that the Ministry has somehow given the impression that to instil discipline in children there is only a choice of using corporal punishment or descending into a “Lord of the Flies” anarchy.
The infliction of corporal punishment is violence, and violence against children must be recognised as a violation of human rights, as it breaches their most fundamental right to respect, human dignity and integrity. Children’s dependence on adults along with their consequent powerlessness makes them exceedingly vulnerable.
And the issue is not only germane to the situation in our schools. Events at Onderneeming on the Essequibo Coast demonstrate that children in detention facilities and other state or private institutions are often victims of beating, sexual abuse, rape, neglect and psychological violence by staff and “caregivers”. Street children and those who come in contact with law enforcement personnel are known to be at risk of violent treatment.
Ironically, because of our slave and indentured history, most Guyanese adults have accepted the position that the physical and psychological elements of corporal punishment are necessary for instilling discipline in children. It is a paradigmatic instance of the abused becoming the abuser in an analogous situation of unequal power resistance.
Both physical and psychological punishments are violations of children’s rights. These punishments have both short and long-term adverse effects on children. Beating a child causes pain, injury, humiliation, anxiety, and anger that could have long-term psychological effects. Physical and psychological punishment may reduce the child’s sense of worth and increase vulnerability to depression. In extreme instances, physical violence results in permanent injuries and disabilities.
It is not uncommon for a child’s eardrum to be damaged when he/she is ‘boxed’. Even the mere threat of corporal/physical punishment in schools has a deep and often damaging impact on children’s motivation, interest and ability to learn and grow as learners and individuals. Children, especially girls and the disabled are vulnerable to unequal treatment, harassment, bullying and under-estimation, which harm them in profound and long lasting ways.
Many scientific studies have shown that children subjected to abuse and physical violence in the early years become violent and abusive in adulthood. Physical and psychological punishment can be replaced by techniques of positive discipline. Very simply, positive discipline takes into account wider practices and principles of child development, child rearing and childcare. It is integral to child-focused participatory and inclusive approaches to teaching, working with and caring for children.
This approach and technique centres on respect and responsibility. It encourages adults to empathise with a child’s point of view instead of simply imposing their perspective by force. Positive discipline is participatory. It does not instruct. Ground rules are mutually agreed upon. It focuses on finding lasting solutions to differences in perspectives. A creative atmosphere involving play and participatory tools and techniques can actually work best to channelize children’s energies and interests for their own development as responsible and accountable citizens.
The Ministry and teachers should get with the programme.