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Tuesday 20 December 2005
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SOUTHERN AFRICA: Spare the rod, create a human being

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]


Two boys sit on the street in Johannesburg, South Africa. Children who live on the streets are at high risk of violence - particularly sexual abuse and exploitation - by community members, police and others.

JOHANNESBURG, 22 Jul 2005 (IRIN) - Rapelang Segale will always bear a reminder of when, as a seven-year-old, she was hospitalised after a teacher assaulted her with a rubber hose. She had to undergo surgery to reset the bones in her left palm, after being lashed for misplacing her exercise book.

The incident took place two years ago, soon after Botswana decided to retain corporal punishment in its school system.

The majority of Southern African countries adhere to the line from Samuel Butler's poem, 'Hudibras', "... spare the rod, and spoil the child".

The problem was highlighted by Professor Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, the expert heading a UN Study on Violence Against Children, who pointed out that South Africa, which had abolished corporal punishment in 1996, led the region in protecting the child's rights. Namibia and Zambia are the only other Southern African countries to outlaw corporal punishment in schools.

Mozambique is in the process of drawing up a Children's Act that will offer protection from abuse and the government has also set up 34 centres in police stations to provide special care and counselling to women and children suffering physical abuse and domestic violence.

Pinheiro, a former Secretary of State for Human Rights in Brazil, who has directed the country's Centre for the Study of Violence since 1990, told IRIN: "We are against violence of any kind - physical or psychological. Hitting or smacking children is a type of violence."

He has held nine regional consultations towards producing the final report. The meeting in Johannesburg this week ended with a call for a total ban on corporal punishment. The results of the study will be published next year.

According to Pinheiro, the study is the first of its kind and was initiated to provide a detailed global picture of the nature, extent and causes of violence against children, and to propose recommendations for action to prevent and reduce such violence. Violence in wars is being probed by another expert.

The project will cover the nature and extent of violence against children in five settings: the home and family; schools and educational settings; other institutional establishments - orphanages, children in conflict with the law; the community and on the streets; and in work situations.

For each type of violence the study will review what is known about the causes and associated risk and protective factors. "The focus will be on prevention strategies, in particular through the identification of best practices in prevention, including those designed by children and members of the civil society," said Pinheiro.

The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) said the report would consider various issues, such as violence in the media and other virtual settings, including child pornography; traditional harmful practices, including female genital mutilation and early/forced marriage; violence against children from ethnic minorities, immigrant or migrant communities or those with or affected by HIV/AIDS; and children as perpetrators of violence, including bullying.

UNICEF, which facilitated the consultation in South Africa, said delegates observed that although most countries in eastern and southern Africa had outlawed corporal punishment to some degree, it remained prevalent in homes, where it was hidden from public view and often enjoyed legal protection in civil and customary law.

Patrick Solomon, from Molo Songololo, one of South Africa's leading children's rights organisations, noted that despite legislation allowing children to lay a criminal charge against their parents in case of violence, "in practice the situation is quite different".

Children's lack of information about their rights, the inability of short-staffed enforcement agencies to monitor violations and enforce the law, and parents and teachers who often did not know where to "draw the parameters of what disciplining a child" entailed were some of the reasons why abuse continued, said Solomon.

Annamarie van Rensburg, a Namibian mother of two sons, aged seven and nine, who sees herself as a loving mother, remarked, "Now and again you have to be firm with the boys - a short slap on the buttocks brings better results than endless reprimands."

She was smacked often as a child. "It did not do me any harm, but I will not apply that to my sons - just the occasional slap."

Many members of the teaching fraternity in neighbouring countries argued that physical violence was "culturally justified".

According to Claude Mararike, a sociology professor at the University of Zimbabwe, "Saying corporal punishment is abuse of children's rights is a Eurocentric view that does not tally with our social norms and values. It is traditionally acceptable to use the rod in order to bring out the best in the child."

Corporal punishment is not allowed in Mozambican schools, but many teachers still hit pupils and threaten them with violence, said police officer Maria Supinha, who deals with child abuse cases and violence against women. Although she sees more cases of violence in the home, she knows from talking to children that teachers are also guilty.

"Violence used as a means of discipline should never be viewed as legally or culturally acceptable: would you ever smack your cat or a dog - so why a child?" reasoned Pinheiro.

"Children who grow up in an environment that tolerates physical abuse eventually learn to accept it as a way of life," said Peter Newell of the Global Initiative to End Corporal Punishment of Children. "Hitting children teaches them bad behaviours."

In their opening statement at the consultation, UNICEF said children had called for stiffer penalties against corporal punishment, saying beatings "make us feel bad about ourselves" and made them feel less human.

"Corporal punishment destroys the interest of a child in school. In fact, it is a hindrance to his or her education," remarked Duncan Nyirenda, director of the Malawi Institute of Education.

Marjorie Dlamini, a Swazi primary school teacher, commented: "If you cane a student, all you are teaching him or her is that might makes right. There are other ways of disciplinng the undisciplined child without resorting to violence and humiliation - that just breeds resentment."

"Corporal punishment is total abuse. People should not whip children at all," said Zambia's Permanent Human Rights Commission chairman Mumba Malila.
"If you fail to discipline your children by talking to them, you should consider yourself a failure."

A 2004 Human Sciences Research Council study (HSRC), entitled 'Partner Violence, Attitudes to Child Discipline and Use of Corporal Punishment', indicated that nearly 20 percent of South African men and women experienced violent physical assault in their domestic relationships, either as perpetrators, victims, or both.

The study questioned nearly 1,000 parents with children on corporal punishment and found that 57 percent of the participants reported using corporal punishment, with 33 percent using severe corporal punishment - beating with a belt, stick or other object. According to the HSRC, these proportions were lower than non-representative studies conducted elsewhere in Africa, and somewhat lower than figures collected in the US and Britain.

Younger South African parents were less likely to use corporal punishment than older parents, and cultural patterns were evident in the findings that Indian and Asian parents were least likely to smack their children, while black Africans and whites were more likely to beat their children with a stick or similar object.

According to UNICEF, instituting stiffer penalties against corporal punishment should start with abolishing laws sanctioning the practice in the first place.

Newell noted that while it was impractical, if not inimical to the interests of children to prosecute every offending parent, the purpose of law reform was to set a trend. "A good law will determine the norms and send the clear message that hitting children is simply unacceptable," he said.

Some teachers suggested the aggressive pursuit of alternative disciplinary measures, such as detention, menial labour and privilege denial.

"The school, a place of learning, has turned into a theatre of nightmares because there is violence and it is unbearable", said a child delegate from Zambia.

Recent trends in Eastern and Southern Africa, the region most affected by HIV/AIDS, indicated an increasing vulnerability to violence by orphans and children affected by AIDS. Without the means to ensure basic survival, and having no recourse to protective social safety nets, many children were forced into commercial sex, child labour or early marriage.

"We must remember that children struggle every day to cope with the pressure that violence brings into their lives," said Cheryl Gilwald, South Africa's Deputy Minister of Correctional Services. "The true measure of a nation's humanity is the respect with which it treats its children."

Despite the numerous social and economic problems facing many countries in the region, the general consensus was that a lack of resources should not be an excuse for inaction, said UNICEF in a statement.

Ensuring a safe and protective environment for children was key to the continued existence of nations as free democracies. In the words of one child participant from Angola, "to guarantee the rights of children is to promote peace".

 Theme(s) Children
Other recent SOUTHERN AFRICA reports:

Volume of food aid causes transport bottleneck,  19/Dec/05

IRIN-SA Weekly Round-up 261 for 10-16 December 2005,  16/Dec/05

Renewed calls for culling in wildlife reserves raises alarm among conservation groups,  15/Dec/05

South Africa's fuel shortage hits neighbours, could affect humanitarian operations,  13/Dec/05

IRIN-SA Weekly Round-up 260 for 3-9 December 2005,  9/Dec/05

Other recent Children reports:

NAMIBIA: OVC population to double in 15 years, 19/Dec/05

PAKISTAN: Acute respiratory infections increasing among quake survivors, 16/Dec/05

WEST AFRICA: IRIN-WA Weekly Round-up 308 covering 10-16 December 2005, 16/Dec/05

COTE D IVOIRE: War brings easy profits for some, hardship for others, 15/Dec/05

MIDDLE EAST: MIDDLE EAST: Weekly round-up Number 52 for 11–15 December 2005, 15/Dec/05

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