Corporal Punishment: Drawing the Line

by Claire Burrus

I had the privilege of spending four wonderful months in Tanzania, a vibrant country located in East Africa, during the fall of 2016. Every moment I spent there, I learned more than I could possibly explain. I learned that when analyzing a culture different than one’s own, it is difficult to make judgement calls. It doesn’t feel right to assert my own personal opinions in a cultural context that does not belong to me. During my stay, I learned about countless situations in which students were beaten in their schools. In several cases, educators harshly punished their students for the most insignificant of offenses. The use of corporal punishment was often difficult for me to justify. My moral judgements were simmering just below the surface. One woman I spoke with recounted being beaten by her teacher when she was small because she was mixed-race, and because her teacher envied her well-off parents. This occurred over a decade ago, but the sentiment, she believed, rang true today.

The issue of corporal punishment in Tanzania gained attention in October 2016 when a video filmed in a Tanzanian school went viral. The video showed a child being beaten repeatedly in an office by several adults. The footage spread like wildfire via social media. The video is 38 seconds long, for much of which the child is lying in a restricted position on the ground but is continuing to be punched and slapped by several men surrounding him. Details released in news reports revealed that the student, a teenage secondary school student in Mbeya, was being punished by his teachers for failing to take an English test. This event sparked a national conversation about the morality of corporal punishment, and if and where the line should be drawn between classroom discipline and child abuse. The video even inspired international awareness.

Corporal punishment is controversial. Many areas of the world have completely outlawed the practice, as it has been proven to be detrimental to the mental, emotional and physical well-being of children. Many view the practice as immoral, equating it to child abuse – a violation of human rights. Yet, supporters of corporal punishment argue that the practice is constructive, and that it discourages unfavorable behavior in children, leading them to grow into disciplined and successful adults. Tanzania is one of many countries in which corporal punishment continues to be widespread in schools. While the practice is illegal, the law is not heavily enforced.

Physical punishment is understood to be acceptable by teachers, administrators, and parents alike.

Children in Tanzania  are often beaten so badly in schools that it is difficult for them to sit down. Sometimes they are punished repeatedly for a single incident. These extreme cases are do not occur very frequently, yet still far more often than they should, especially considering the legal status of the practice. Physical punishment is intended to encourage students to behave nicely and work hard. However, the physical and emotional damage from this treatment could have the opposite effect. Often children who experience corporal punishment feel dejected and discouraged from wanting to succeed in school.

Corporal punishment has become normalized within Tanzanian schools, and it is rarely discussed in the public sphere. However, it is locals widely agree that there is a major difference between slapping a child on the wrist and beating them bloody. There is a line between acceptable punishment and outright abuse of a child, and it must not be crossed.

Tanzania is not the only country in the world to be involved in this debate.

Many countries have moved towards a zero-tolerance legal policy, which considers corporal punishment to be child abuse in all cases and encourages legal action to be taken in cases of corporal punishment. Others are more lenient. In the United States, corporal punishment legality is left to the discretion of the states. To date, 19 states continue to allow the practice, however often within specific parameters, such as requiring written permission from parents.

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines corporal punishment as “physical punishment, or punishment that involves hitting someone”. This term is frequently used within the context of disciplinary actions adults use on children in schools, although the term is also used in other contexts. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child uses the term to refer to “any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however slight”.

A major inquiry brought up within the controversial corporal punishment debate is at what point physical punishment becomes abuse. Is it when a strike leaves behind a bruise? Or is it whenever objects or weapons are used? Is it more constructive for countries or states to go through the process of defining this line, or is outlawing corporal punishment altogether more effective in protecting children? Does Tanzania stand as an example of the failure of a national legal system to protect the children in its schools?

We all can agree that children must be protected and that the behavior of the men filmed beating the schoolboy in Mbeya was out of line, but can we agree on the line? Must we? And if so, how?

Claire Burrus is a junior at Trinity University majoring in Environmental Studies. She studied abroad last semester in Tanzania.

The picture depicts Tanzanian Students at Mekomariro Secondary School being introduced to their donated Raspberry Pi systems. It was created by DGately and is licensed under a CC BY-SA 4.0; it can be found here.

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