Corporal Punishment in Zimbabwe Is an Unseen Evil

An unidentified boy wipes his tears after he fell on the ground during a ball game at the  Just Children Foundation  for orph
An unidentified boy wipes his tears after he fell on the ground during a ball game at the Just Children Foundation for orphans in Harare, Friday, April, 14, 2006. According to statistics almost one in three children in Zimbabwe, are now orphaned having lost at least one parent to HIV and AIDS.(AP Photo)

Shaping the personalities and character traits of children is arguably a key role of parenthood. There are varied ways parents, guardians and the broader society attempt to shape the kinds of people their children will grow up to be. However, different societies attempt to shape children in different ways. In some instances parents model appropriate behaviors and values for their children through intrinsic inculcation of values. Others rely on extrinsic inculcation of values through the education system, guidance and counseling and spiritual or religious means. Zimbabwean society and indeed many other cultures have historically relied on the use of physical violence and or the threat of violence to discipline children. Parental corporal punishment is the preferred tool for shaping children's behavior.

This discipline is commonly meted out through slaps, beatings, thumping and pinches. This dose of discipline can be administered by the use of bare hands or objects such as a switch, a whip or the closest object to the parent. One of the memories that has stuck with me even as an adult is how one of my cousins, Gamu, was naïve enough to inform my grandmother that she had failed her secondary school exams while she was sitting next to the fire. In a moment of rage she pulled out a burning log and chased her out the hut. Fortunately for Gamu, grandma could not keep up with her. I often wonder what would have happened if she had been caught.

Culturally, failure to physically punish children after they have done something wrong is regarded as a weakness on the part of the parent. Children who are not physically punished are regarded as "spoiled children." After a beating session one of my uncles always used to stand in the middle of the house and remark, "I beat you up so you can get funny notions out of your head and make it clear your opinion is irrelevant." When I was growing up I often listened to elders around me talk about how if one spares the rod they spoil the child. Zimbabwe is a highly religious society with Christianity and traditional beliefs being very dominant. One of the few things that these otherwise world-apart belief systems agree on is the use of corporal punishment to discipline children. As a mischievous child, being beaten up by parents and relatives for various misdemeanors became normal. I simply thought nothing of it; I did not think there was anything wrong with it.

Other adults that are not your parents can also beat a child up if they consider their behaviour to be unbecoming of a good child. This of course is based on the cultural principle that anyone old enough to be your parent was supposed to be accorded respect and they could also discipline children, even those belonging to other community members especially in the rural areas. The idea behind some of these norms and accepted behaviors can be understood. However with the advent of modernization most of these behavioral patterns and norms have changed. Families have become more private, and no doubt one cannot just discipline another person's child without their permission.

When I was in primary school I feared my mathematics teacher because he was well known for giving thorough beatings to any pupils who did not perform well. His constant beatings did not improve my grades in mathematics, but made me hate the subject and instilled a fear of him that I failed to shake off for the rest of my primary school years. This subject always stirs up heated debate and often no common ground can be reached as others think that corporal punishment is a necessary evil as long as it is done in moderation while others feel it should be completely done away with. It is clear that corporal punishment is still popular as a method of disciplining children in Zimbabwe. However this practice violates children's rights and contravenes the current constitution and international conventions.

Often, parents and teachers go overboard and inflict irreversible emotional and physical harm. I was horrified to learn recently that a 17-year-old student was slapped and strangled by a teacher for failing to return a history book in time. The student had to seek medical attention at a local hospital. What is moderate is subjective and most people go to extremes. One parent I spoke to explained that a lack of corporal punishment is part of the reason why there is a lot of violence in society because children are not being disciplined. We've now grown into a society where it is okay to be rude and disrespectful. Where do we draw the line? Some children grow up without the need to be flogged whereas others may absolutely need it. If it is not done at home and is not allowed in school then who will discipline our children, the jails? However corporal punishment in my view can result in children becoming violent adults who think it is acceptable to inflict pain on others. Children who are beaten in school may also vent on other innocent children through bullying. Violence against children is a microcosm of the wider problems of violence at all levels of society. The efficacy of corporal punishment is on display for young children, which is why they grow up to believe that it is acceptable to beat their wives, political rivals, accused persons and even their pets. I however understand the dilemma that parents with difficult children face in trying to find suitable ways of disciplining their children, but it may be possible to pursue other methods of discipline in children.

The Committee on the Rights of the Child defines "corporal" or "physical" punishment as any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light. Most involves hitting ("smacking," "slapping," "spanking") children, with the hand or with an implement -- a whip, stick, belt, shoe, wooden spoon, etc. But it can also involve, for example, kicking, shaking or throwing children, scratching, pinching, biting, pulling hair or boxing ears, forcing children to stay in uncomfortable positions, burning, scalding or forced ingestion. In the view of the Committee, corporal punishment is invariably degrading. The Constitution of Zimbabwe states that no person may be subjected to physical or psychological torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Children should enjoy equal protection of the law, thus if one cannot legally beat up an adult they should not legally beat up a child. Children also have the right to protection from all forms of maltreatment and abuse. There are however other laws that need to be aligned to the new constitution in order to end corporal punishment.

According to our law, only the school head or a teacher to whom authority has been delegated by the head, or any other teacher in the presence of the head, can inflict corporal punishment on boys on the buttocks with a suitable strap, cane or smooth light switch. In the case of girls, the law stipulates that corporal punishment should be administered on hands and not on buttocks. A parent or guardian also has authority to administer moderate corporal punishment for disciplinary purposes upon his or her minor child or ward. Further in the penal system, corporal punishment is lawful as a sentence for crime for males under the age of 18, up to six strokes can be inflicted in private, following certification by a medical practitioner that the boy is fit to receive the punishment; the parent or guardian has a right to be present. These provisions are ulta vires of the Constitution and are to that extent unlawful.

Zimbabwe should create a platform for serious discussion on the use of corporal punishment and other forms of humiliating or degrading punishment of children in the family, school, and the justice system, but also develop awareness and education campaigns to promote positive, non-violent discipline of children. We should move away from the rhetoric where violence is made acceptable when portrayed as acceptable by people in authority as this breeds a tolerance to violence. However while there are concerns with regards the propriety of letting the courts regulate how parents raise their children as well as the possible infringement on religious and cultural beliefs there is still need for constructive dialogue around this issue in order to protect the rights of the child.