From South Africa to Singapore to France, the question of when or where adults can physically discipline children continues to fuel debate.
PARIS — French parenting has earned a reputation as an approach just strict enough to raise well-behaved, well-adjusted children. And that has often included a swift slap or spank for a petit or petite who steps out of line. But now, a new law passed earlier this month in France officially prohibits "ordinary educational violence" — i.e. spanking —guaranteeing "violence-free education" for children, including "psychological violence."
The practice has increasingly come into question around the world, from spanking, paddling, slapping, smacking, caning, hair-pulling, ear-twisting, whipping, flogging… you name it. They're all examples of corporal punishment and are prohibited by the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The Convention was signed by 140 states and yet, only about 60 of those fully implemented these restrictions in the form of national laws, and even in those cases, the practice sometimes continues because of lax enforcement.
On a global scale, a UNICEF report highlighted in November 2018 that nearly 300 million children between the ages of 2 and 4 face some type of physical discipline on a regular basis. While child welfare advocates may be gaining ground, there's clearly much to do still to ensure that minors have the protections they deserve.
Here are five countries where, one way or another, violent discipline has made the news recently.
Judicial caning is still fairly common in this island city-state, where it is applicable for more than 30 offenses and even compulsory for crimes such as rape and murder. What is more problematic is that it can be meted out to young boys, though not to girls.
School caning is also a thing and is allowed by the Ministry of Education — again, for boys only. Public caning is meant to be done at last resort. In 2016 for instance, about 30 students were punished for sharing up-skirt photos and videos of six teachers.
Not surprisingly, what is applicable in the classroom is also applicable at home. It is not unlawful for parents to cane their children in Singapore, as long as it does not constitute what can be considered as "abuse." What precisely distinguishes the two is unclear.
Whether at home, in schools or in daycare facilities, Singapore has a long way to go still if it wants to respect the terms of the 1989 convention, which it signed while at the same time defending "the judicious application of corporal punishment in the best interest of the child."
Children's rights advocates were happy, however, to see that in May, the nation's parliament passed legislation lifting the age of criminal responsibility from 7 to 10 and thus increasing the minimum age at which boys can be canned. A small victory.
Unlike Singapore, Lebanon outlawed corporal punishment in schools — all the way back in 1974. And yet, more than four decades later, the practice remains widespread due to a lack of enforcement, according to a recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report.
In 2011, a national survey conducted by Beirut's Saint Joseph University found that 76% of students interviewed had been victims to violence from teachers or staff. And many studies concede that this ongoing practice has a direct impact on the country's dropout rate.
A penal code reform in 2014 tried to tackle this issue by removing an exemption that teachers had been using as a legal loophole. Until then, teachers were allowed to inflict "culturally accepted" levels of physical punishment without being held accountable. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child wants Lebanon to go further still and pass new legislation criminalizing corporal corporal punishment "however light, in all settings."
The story of Fadi, one of 51 children interviewed by HRW, is representative of the situation. He was diagnosed with leukemia when he was five and takes medications that make it hard for him to pay full attention in class. His school teachers, on the grounds that they could not grant him any "special treatment," kept abusing him physically and verbally.
In its report, the New York City-based rights group also mentioned a boy whose nose was broken twice, and a girl who was wrongly accused of cheating and beaten up.
The new law, passed July 2, is hardly self-evident in a country where 85% of parents admit to having slapped or spanked their children in the past, and where the right to "physically discipline" their offspring has long been seen as a normal educational tool.
Lawmakers first tried to take on spanking in 2009, unsuccessfully. Seven years later, the parliament again visited the issue, approving a law that was very similar to the legislation passed this month. In that case, though, the French Constitutional Council blocked the move on a technicality.
Corporal punishment, mostly paddling and spanking, is still permitted in public schools in 19 states — mostly in the so-called Bible Belt — and in private schools in all but two of the country's 50 states.
For the 2013-2014 school year, roughly 106,000 American children are estimated to have been punished physically. More alarming still is that such punishment are disproportionately meted out to black and/or disabled children. A study pointed out that in Alabama and Mississippi, for instance, black children were more than five times as likely as white children to face such disciplinary measures.
Percentage of public schools reporting any corporal punishment by state in 2011-2012 – Source: Society for Research in Child Development
A 1977 Supreme Court decision, Ingraham v. Wright, stated that corporal punishment in school was constitutional, leaving states to decide whether to allow it. While it's still culturally accepted in some places, paddling is de facto never used in many because school districts and boards have banned or restricted it. Just last year, the last county in North Carolina to still use corporal punishment in schools voted finally to ban the practice.
New Mexico, in 2011, was the latest state to prohibit corporal punishment outright in schools, but others have yet to follow suit. In a letter to governors and chief state school officers in 2016, the then-U.S. education secretary, John B. King, Jr, urged states to change their laws. "This practice has no place in the public schools of a modern nation that plays such an essential role in the advancement and protection of civil and human rights," he wrote.
Twenty-three years after banning corporal punishment in schools, South Africa continues to debate the issue. And the practice is still allowed in homes, where under South African common law, parents are entitled "to inflict moderate and reasonable chastisement on a child" — for now, at least.
In 2017 a high court ruled corporal punishment to be unconstitutional. But the decision was contested by Freedom of Religion South Africa, a Christian organization. The case has now made its way to the constitutional court, which is expected to render a decision later this year.
Some teachers, in the meantime, continue to argue that the ban on corporal punishment in schools deprives them of a tool to control unruly students. The situation there is a good example of how cultural norms can be slow to change, especially in a country with such a striking history of violence.
But that's also an argument for why policy changes from on high can be so important. Perhaps tackling violence from infancy will help end the vicious circle. As Ndabenhle Mdluli, a principal, argued during a round table discussion at the University of KwaZulu-Natal:
"The only value of corporal punishment is that it takes us deep into becoming a violent society when we should be a caring one. We need to find ways to move constructively forward to create a peaceful society."