Delegates to a preparatory consultation on the UN Study on Violence Against Children call for a total ban on corporal punishment
|© UNICEF South Africa/2005|
|A young Kenyan participant in a play during the ESAR consultation on the UN Study on Violence against Children|
Noting that the practice was a violation of children’s rights, the over 300 government, NGO and child representatives from Eastern and Southern Africa said hitting children contravened the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and was harmful to the healthy development of children. They called for home-grown alternatives to corporal punishment.
“Hitting or smacking children is a type of violence,” said the Independent Expert on the UN Study Professor Paulo Sergio Pinheiro. “Violence used as a means of discipline, despite its devastating effects on the child, should never be viewed as legally or culturally acceptable.”
Delegates observed that despite most countries in eastern and southern Africa outlawing corporal punishment to some degree, it remained prevalent in homes, where it is hidden from public view and often enjoys legal protection through civil and customary laws. Where legislation adequately proscribes the practice, the lack of capacity to monitor violations and enforce the law means that smacking of children continues largely unabated.
“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, the children called for stiffer penalties against corporal punishment, saying the beatings made them feel less human. “They make us feel bad about ourselves.”
For many countries, instituting stiffer penalties against corporal punishment should start with abolishing laws which sanction the practice in the first place. While it is impractical, if not inimical to the interests of children, to prosecute every offending parent, the purpose of law reform, according to Newell, is to set the trend. “A good law will determine the norms and send the clear message that hitting children is simply unacceptable.”
For the child delegates at the meeting, violence in schools and in communities was a frightening and increasing phenomenon. Citing the ills - teen pregnancies, circumcision of girls, forced marriages, drugs and substance abuse, sexual abuse and exploitation – the children painted a disturbing scenario that left many delegates searching for answers.
“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. “How is it that Africa, a continent so rich in resources, cultures and values, today fails to protect its own children, its present and future resource?” asked a young refugee from Rwanda.
As well as ending corporal punishment, the consultation discussed the role of HIV/AIDS and poverty in fuelling violence against children. Recent trends in Eastern and Southern Africa, the region most affected by HIV/AIDS, indicate an increasing vulnerability to violence of orphans and children affected by AIDS. Without the means to ensure basic survival, and with no recourse to protective social safety nets, many children are forced into commercial sex trade, child labour, or early marriage.
“We must remember that children struggle everyday to cope with the pressure that violence brings into their lives,” said Ms. 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 was not an excuse for inaction.
“I cannot think of a more fundamental obligation, a more salient duty than that of protecting children from violence,” said Dr. Assefa Bequele of the African Child Policy Forum and a member of the African Union’s Commission on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.
“In Eastern and Southern Africa, peace, democracy, and freedom are the three key elements of a conducive environment for children,” said Mr. Macharia Kamau, UNICEF Representative to South Africa.
Ensuring a safe and protective environment for children in the region will be 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.”
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