An initiative to end violence against children through full legal prohibition of corporal punishment

Elizabeta Lukacevic, Bureau for Human Rights Tuzla: "“Corporal punishment of children is legally banned in most countries in the region, We hope that Bosnia and Herzegovina will follow suit. "

Interviewed by Almir Panjeta
Elizabeta Lukačević
26 September 2019

“Prohibition and elimination of all corporal punishment is an immediate obligation under international human rights law. Corporal punishment not only affects the emotional behaviour and academic performance of a child, but also leads to reduction in self esteem and dignity of a child.”

Elizabeta Lukacevic, Bureau for Human Rights Tuzla

It is the duty of all countries, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, to reform their laws and take corrective and other measures to prohibit and abolish all corporal punishment of children. How far has the initiative to amend the family laws in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina come when it comes to a direct ban on corporal punishment of children?

The initiative is currently in the form of a proposal. It was sent a year ago to the Ministry of Justice, and four months ago formally entered the proceedings at the suggestion of a member of the House of Representatives of the Federal Parliament. It was supposed to be on the agenda at the end of June, but since the House of Representatives had no leadership the session was postponed, so it was left for autumn. We expect responses from both the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy in charge of family laws in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

What are the laws and to what extent should they be amended?

At the beginning of the Campaign in mid-2018, we decided on family legislation because it was important for us to open the door to this topic in some way. The ban on corporal punishment is currently regulated by the framework law for primary and secondary education in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but the physical punishment of children in the home has not been addressed. At the moment, Corporal punishment of children is legally banned in most countries in the region of Europe and Central Asia. The latest countries to prohibit it are France (July 2019) and Kosovo (June 2019). We hope that Bosnia and Herzegovina will follow suit. ,. At the beginning of the campaign, we studied the experiences of other countries in our region, and their beginnings in working on it. For example, Croatia launched a major campaign 15 years ago that was part of the Council of Europe campaign. They treated the ban on the physical punishment of children through both criminal and family and misdemeanour legislation. It took at least eight years, but they made changes in all three segments. Taking into account all the experiences of the countries in the region, we consciously decided to start amendments to the family law, which has not been amended for a long time, since 2005. The topic is broad and implies a lot, for now, it is family law, which does not mean that it will not expand if we achieve some success in due course.

How was the initiative accepted?

When we introduced the initiative, the first feedback from the Federal Ministry of Justice was to look at deeper changes to family law, which required much more time. We have only made a few amendments so far to bring this into the system. It is clear to us that the abolition of physical punishment for children must involve three segments: legal reform is just one of these, and there are certainly policy reforms and awareness-raising. Within the campaign, we have dealt with a lot of legislation related to family law, but also raising awareness because the topic is quite taboo.  Through raising awareness, we also worked a lot in schools with children, and my favourite thing that we did and that turned out to be great was a theatre play in cooperation with the Tuzla Youth Theater whose script was worked by children from 11 to 14 years old who are part of that ensemble.

How did the idea come about to present this topic through the play and how was it accepted?

As an organization, we have been advocating for law reform for many years. We have tried various tools for how to make certain social changes, and this with the show turned out well because we discovered a new way to get closer to children and young people and where they are starting to move some things forward. Through the project with UNICEF, we had only one premiere planned, but great interest was shown and in recent months it has been shown in four cities and we are getting new requests. We were also contacted by a school in Bugojno that also wants this show to be shown at them. We are trying to find additional funding for it to be displayed not only in Bugojno but in at least four to five other schools of interest.

The deal was for about 30 kids from the ensemble to bring their own stories, stories from the surrounding area or school about how they view physical punishment. With the help of a coordinator and an art director, they made a play and were aware that they had opened up about topics that were not easy. There were a lot of parents at the premiere last May and their first reaction was "Well, these are not important things." It was also interesting at roundtables in the Federation where both people from the institutions and part of the executive and legislative branches asked: "Why do you problematize these things now when there are more important things in Bosnia and Herzegovina?" So you can see that some things have become normal. The play is for the age group from 5th to 9th grade, it has a positive effect and we will see what will happen in the field of legislation, we are waiting for to see if it will happen now at the beginning of autumn.

What is the difference between the views of those who belong to the 55 per cent and the message sent by the children through the play?

Children have been involved in the field of child rights protection for the past decade and are more aware of things now than they were before, as is the case with domestic violence, something no one talked about 15 years ago until women became more aware and started reporting it. It is the same with children now - they simply take a better look at some of the things their parents impose on them and give messages that are different.

Inicijativa za potpunu zakonsku zabranu fizičkog kažnjavanja djece

How important is it that it goes hand in hand, awareness-raising and aw reform, and which to prioritize? Is there a law to accompany awareness-raising, or vice versa?

There is also a third segment - policy reform that includes strategic and action plans that support this initiative. What is positive is that the Action Plan of the Council of Children is part of the strategic objective of prohibiting the physical punishment of children, and as a member state of the Council of Europe we are obliged to align our legislation with all international conventions. So the complete change goes to three levels - through law reform and policy development, strengthening justice, social wlefare, health and education systems, and changing social norms and attitudes condoning corporal punishment of children.

To what extent would the introduction of a ban on the corporal punishment of children, with adequate sanctions or disciplinary measures, help to change awareness?

Prohibiting corporal punishment is about ensuring children are equally protected under the law on assault – whoever the perpetrator and whether or not the assault is inflicted as “discipline” or punishment.

As the smallest and most vulnerable members of society, children deserve more, not less, protection from assault. The primary purpose of legal prohibition is educative – providing a clear statement that any level or form of corporal punishment is no longer acceptable – rather than punitive.”

How important is a multidisciplinary approach to the problem, through the education, health, social welfare and justice systems?

Close cooperation is very important, especially between schools and social work centres that exist, but where we see that there is still an intermediate space that is not filled. Also important is their cooperation with the police, but also with other institutions in charge of protecting children's rights. Two key actors are family and school, and I think that needs to be discussed more in schools.

How to best provide systematic support to the family for nonviolent problem solving and choice of alternative forms of child discipline?

What we are still missing and what we have seen through this work are family counselling centres at social work centres or as stand-alone units that would provide adequate support to parents and children. Family counselling centres exist in some settings and are usually adjacent to a social work centre, but in several settings, there is a need but they don’t exist. Besides, a very important segment are mental health centres that can help in some situations. Educators in schools have told us that they need co-operation with both social work centres and mental health centres and joint multi-disciplinary co-operation is necessary. There are, of course, healthcare and family medicine that should be included. Family doctors very rarely report cases where they notice some injuries in children because they avoid having to 'clash' with their parents.

In what direction will the initiative go?

When it comes to raising awareness, this applies not only to children but also to institutions, parents, family doctors and preschool education during which work should begin with children. What is certain is that the campaign continues at this pace, I hope that in the near future we will have more resources to raise the awareness level because what we have seen is that there is a mood to start this story because, as we have already stated. France was the last of the EU countries to make that change in July this year, and more than 56 countries in the world have it regulated. Sweden was the first in the world to regulate it back in 1979, and I think it's high time these things were launched in our country as well.