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At a glance: Ghana

In Ghana, an effort to abolish violent discipline in schools


Violence against children occurs all over the world, and it takes many forms – bullying, corporal punishment, sexual abuse and even homicide. Whether this violence takes place in secret, behind closed doors, or out in the open, much of it is never reported. Its survivors often suffer in silence – and pass on this brutal legacy to another generation.

Preventing violence against children begins with a better understanding of its magnitude, and of its causes and effects. A new report from UNICEF, Hidden in plain sight: A statistical analysis of violence against children, draws on data from 190 countries in order to shed light on a largely undocumented issue.

According to the report’s findings, about two thirds of children worldwide (almost 1 billion) between ages 2 and 14 are subjected to physical punishment by their caregivers on a regular basis. And yet only about one third of adults worldwide believe that physical punishment of some kind is necessary to properly raise or educate a child.

In Ghana, UNICEF is joining in the effort to eliminate violent discipline in schools, an accepted practice for generations, and one that persists, despite new laws against it. A few teachers are leading the way in the effort to change attitudes – and behaviours.

© UNICEF Ghana/2014/Gordon
Students attend class at Assassan Catholic School, in central Ghana's Ajumako District.

ASSASSAN, Ghana, 3 September 2014 – When Benedicte Bon-Farson was a young girl in grade 3, she didn’t want to go to school. “Anytime I got up to go to school, I feel like, ahh!” she recalls, many years later.

Ms. Bon-Farson is left handed, and because of this, her grade 3 teacher constantly ‘caned’ her – punished her by hitting her with a cane.

“It took me a lot of pain to go through that one year,” she says.

Today, Ms. Bon-Farson teaches religion and moral education at Assassan Catholic School in the Ajumako District of central Ghana.

And she never uses a cane to discipline her pupils.

Changing a culture of caning

According to a report by Ghana’s Department of Children and Children and Youth in Broadcasting, more than 80 per cent of children have experienced caning in school. A variety of factors – traditional beliefs, overcrowded classrooms, poverty, and personal challenges faced by students as well as teachers – are seen as contributing to this widespread practice.

Following the principles of Child Friendly School programming, the Ghana Education Service has taken a number of actions to abolish corporal punishment, such as revising the teachers’ handbook and making teachers aware of the consequences for harming pupils, including possible legal action and prosecution.

© UNICEF Ghana/2014/Gordon
A teacher at Assassan Catholic School stands at the chalkboard with a pointer, which some teachers also use to discipline students.

UNICEF and others are also lobbying for strict enforcement of the code of conduct, which cautions teachers on the use of corporal punishment. New guidelines say that the cane should not be used and doing so is at the teacher’s own risk. A manual on positive forms of discipline is also in development.

Roland Takyi, a Guidance and Counseling Officer at the National Office of the Education Service, explains that ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’ is a commonly held belief in Ghana.

“People think the most efficient way to correct a child is with the cane,” he says. “We think this keeps children who fear the cane out of the classroom.”

Mr. Takyi says he might have pursued a career as an engineer, if not for a science teacher who caned him and discouraged him as a child.

“Caning makes children timid and afraid to show their talents,” he says.

Old habits

While the law is gradually being enforced, many teachers still fall back on caning to keep order. UNICEF Child Protection Officer Emelia Allan says that many teachers may not want to cane their students, but they don’t always have the knowledge and skills for positive discipline. As a result, they resort to corporal punishment, because that is what they know.

“I use the cane to frighten them – just one or two lashes,” says a mathematics teacher at the same school as Ms. Bon-Farson. “When I give them two lashes, then they will behave.”

At the Gesdi Dia Basic School, not far away, there are more than 1,100 students, and some classrooms have as many as 80 students. With such large classes, discipline is always a challenge, and almost impossible without the use of the cane, says headmaster Godfrey Ocansay.

© UNICEF Ghana/2014/Gordon
Benedicte Bon-Farson, a teacher at Assassan Catholic School, says she prefers to talk with students and form strong relationships to maintain control in her classroom.

While primary school enrolment is almost 90 per cent in Ghana, about 466,000 children of primary school age are out of school. Poverty is one reason cited for lack of attendence, but a 2010 study by CREATE found that the behaviour of teachers – absenteeism, lateness and indiscriminant use of corporal punishment – were a main cause of students’ irregular attendance and dropping out.

Breaking the cycle

Even for teachers like Ms. Bon-Farson who refuse to cane their students, social norms and other pressures are still an issue. “When the child is misbehaving, [other teachers] say, ‘Let me cane him for you. If you don’t cane them, they wont do it,’” she says. “But I tell them, ‘You leave them to me. I know what to do – you leave them to me.’”

Some teachers have managed to find new methods. Isaac Nyantech, a teacher at Accra High School, explains that he sometimes has students write essays or simply sends them out of the classroom.

“Most times I ignore children who are misbehaving, because much of the time they are misbehaving to get attention,” he says. “I usually try to develop a relationship with the disruptive students.”

Ms. Bon-Farson’s approach is to talk to the child, trying to understand the reason for his or her misbehabviour.

“Usually it is because of neglect in their home,” she says, explaining that many children who attend the school are left alone at home or with other family members while their parents work elsewhere.

Developing relationships with students is a key part of teaching and ensuring discipline without corporal punishment, so that children can keep striving for achievement.

And without teachers like Isaac Nyantech and Benedicte Bon-Farson, many students might have given up already.



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