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School CP - January 2004

Corpun file 12631

Mail & Guardian, Johannesburg, S. Africa, 18 January 2004

Spare the rod and spoil the child?

By Zarina Geloo
In Lusaka, Zambia

Human rights activists in Zambia scored another victory recently when they got Parliament to outlaw corporal punishment in the country.

Just six months ago, the government also abolished capital punishment and commuted all death sentences to life imprisonment.

Legal Affairs Minister George Kunda said corporal punishment could no longer be tolerated, as it went against constitutional provisions that forbade torture and all forms of punishment that were inhuman or degrading.

The scrapping of corporal punishment has come as a particular relief to school children who often suffer severe beatings under the guise of “regular disciplining”. This is despite the fact that school regulations are supposed to control the use of caning.

Fifteen-year-old Batuke Mwandilila appears to be one of those who have been subjected to unchecked beatings. He has suffered a broken forefinger, and has scars on his back, calves and stomach as a result. Now in his final year at a rural high school in northern Zambia, he says the abolition has come too late for him.

“Ever since I started school in grade one, I have been beaten. The beatings only stopped recently -- I think the teachers are a little scared of me: I am physically bigger than them.”

Mwandilila is matter-of-fact about his treatment and readily shows his scars. But, he’s pleased that his younger siblings will not have to suffer beatings in school.

“It's painful,” he says.

Children at Mwandilila’s school are beaten for a wide range of transgressions, and with a variety of implements.

“Sometimes we are whipped with a sjambok [a hippo tail that causes a severe sting], a rubber whip, a bamboo or wooden stick. But mostly it is a ... wooden cane.”

The boys are hit on the buttocks while the girls are hit on the palm of the hand or on the knuckles. Teachers who find themselves without a whip have been known to slap, pinch and kick their pupils.

Offences that invite a beating include wearing a dirty or torn uniform, poor academic performance, absconding from school, reporting late for classes, speaking the vernacular (children are required to speak English in school) -- and not having a pencil or other school requirements.

Judith Mwanza -- head girl of a government school in the south -- says parents encourage the teachers to beat them “to maintain discipline”.

“The teacher once complained to my mother that I was not doing too well in maths. Before he had even finished talking, my mother asked him ‘Why don’t you beat her?’. When our parents meet the teachers they tell them to beat us to keep us in order.”

Mwanza is glad that corporal punishment has been abolished -- not because it is inhumane, but because it gives the teachers less leverage over pupils.

She says the threat of violence explains why “some girls are used for sex by the teachers”. According to Mwanza, the girls are “scared of getting beaten, or think it will save them from a beating if they make a mistake”.

Her teacher, Alicia Banda, denies ever using physical punishment on any of her students. But, she agrees that some of her colleagues do use “unnecessary force”, and she’s glad that beatings are now banned.

Coming from an urban environment, Banda was initially shocked that corporal punishment was used so frequently in the rural school where she teaches.

“The schools in the towns do not use caning as a regular mode of punishment. It is only in very extreme cases, and is usually only carried out by the head teacher. The parent is subsequently informed of the punishment because it is so severe and rare.”

She says parents in urban areas are more aware of children’s and human rights, and that corporal punishment has also come to be used less frequently in the home: “It is unlikely that these parents are going to allow anyone else to beat their children, neither are teachers inclined to use this form of punishment unless as a last resort.

“But in rural areas, it is still a very cultural thing to not only beat your child, but even that of your neighbour if you think they have done something wrong.”

Banda doesn’t speak for all urban teachers, however. A teacher at a secondary school in Zambia’s capital, Lusaka -- Martha Lusibilo -- complains that she has been “robbed of her trump card” in the class room.

“We will not be able to control the children. They will not listen to us because they know our hands are tied, figuratively. Other punishments like detention and field work are just not as effective as a good swipe across the face. It’s faster, and harder, and the mere threat of it is more effective.” -- IPS

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