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Spare the rod… and save Zambian schoolchildren

When a primary school boy died last year after being whipped by his teacher, Zambia decided to join a growing list of countries to ban corporal punishment.

Controversy and non-compliance continue to dog a government ban on corporal punishment in Zambia's schools, brought about last year after widespread complaints.

Now campaigners are pointing to the dangers of long-term gender-based violence that corporal punishment can lead to.

Until the ruling, generations of students were routinely beaten in the name of discipline: thrashed with hippopotamus tails (known as sjamboks), whipped with canes, kicked, slapped and pinched for misbehaviour, poor results, being late, missing school, wearing a dirty or torn uniform – and sometimes for no reason at all.

Children were left bruised, scarred and humiliated; and many dropped out. Worse, some suffered serious injuries or died.

"I was caned so hard that my buttocks were torn and bleeding," recalls journalist Japhet Banda, punished 18 years ago for refusing his secondary school teacher's demand that he join the then ruling political party. It is a moment that Banda says he will never forget. He does not want his daughters to go through the same experience.

Eighteen years on not much has changed. "We are beaten by mostly male teachers with sticks and hose pipe. Sometimes we get so sore that we have to carry pillows to class to sit on," says Jane Nanyangwe, 16, from a boarding school in Northern Province.

The ban followed a twin-ruling by the Supreme Court in 2000 – it ordered the government to abolish judicial corporal punishment [caning] and overturn the death penalty. According to noted female Justice Lombe Chibesakunda, the Constitution now protects everyone from inhuman treatment, without exception.

All industrialised countries prohibit school corporal punishment, except for the US, Canada and one state in Australia. Zambia joins a small group of developing countries in Africa – Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya – that have outlawed the practice.

The ban, although feebly enforced, has sparked a fierce national debate.

"Corporal punishment is wrong and primitive," says Simon Mwanza, 52, a parent from Ndola town, about 400 km from Lusaka. Adds another parent who requested anonymity: "It is not right for a teacher to beat another person's child. In fact, it has been observed that children who are beaten never reform."

Human rights campaigners have pointed to a declaration by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child: "Children do not lose their human rights by virtue of passing through the school gates."

But many parents support – and hand out – corporal punishment, arguing that it is the 'traditional way' of disciplining children. Swithin Hangaala, 48, a parent from Lusaka and a former rural school teacher, believes that "when you pick up a stick and tell a child you will beat them for indiscipline, they will obey."

For Rev. John Jere, pastor of the Morning Star Christian Church which runs the Samaritan Community Orphanage in Lusaka, the adage "spare the rod and spoil the child" represents the word of God and therefore sanctions corporal punishment.

Jere believes God's word takes precedence over what the UN or others say: "If we do not use [God's principles] and replace them with man-made laws, then we are in trouble. This is in the Bible." He however adds that children should only be beaten for serious offences – "with love and caution" – and only female teachers ought to punish girls.

Unfortunately, "love and caution" were not exercised for a male primary school pupil [name withheld] in Samfya district, 800 km north of Lusaka – he died after being whipped by a teacher last year.

The incident galvanised the national campaign to ban corporal punishment. "Some people, especially children, are so fragile that even a small knock will affect them terribly," says Enock Mulembe of Zambia's statutory human rights body, the Permanent Human Rights Commission.

The education ministry has since informed all schools about the ban – and that violators will be prosecuted if reported to police. But some schools continue the practice, says the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), the main non-government group in Zambia working on child abuse.

In one government-run school at Kalomo town, 400 km from Lusaka, students complained of a teacher who comes in drunk and severely beats pupils for the flimsiest of reasons. The matter was reported to police, but the teacher is still employed.

The YWCA runs national sensitisation programmes which raise awareness among pupils, parents and teachers of the dangers of corporal punishment and advises students of their right to take action against such treatment.

The NGO, along with the education ministry, is also working with teachers and teacher training institutes to develop reasonable and effective alternatives to physical punishment. Misbehaving students are now disciplined by excluding them from playtime or giving them non-abusive physical chores.

Says Lusaka teacher Anne Ndlovu: "It is better to talk to children about their behaviour and help them understand what they are doing is wrong."

In fact, evidence is mounting that the negative long-term costs of corporal punishment far outweigh any short-term disciplinary benefits.

According to research, children who are physically punished by teachers are more likely than others to turn into bullies. Many studies also show a correlation between corporal punishment and later violence – against persons and property, particularly women. Schools that sanction violence help perpetuate violence in future relationships.

As Lusaka street vender Roy Banda says: "If my wife, daughter or son [misbehaves] I must beat them to pump sense in their heads."

A 2001-2002 government survey of gender violence found that 24 per cent of the 5,029 women interviewed reported partner violence, and about 80 per cent accepted that husbands should beat wives "as a form of chastisement".

The good news is that according to a July UN report, Zambia has the "potential" to meet five of its eight Millennium Development Goals by 2015, including providing all children with free access to primary education.

Education for girls, as well as a human right, brings well-known social benefits: pregnancy, delivery, household and child health are all improved through female education. In an April report, Oxfam International, a non-government organisation, estimated that young people aged 15-24 years who completed primary school were less than half as likely to contract HIV as those missing an education.

Abolishing corporal punishment will help keep both sexes in school, campaigners say. "Corporal punishment has been the main reason why girls stay away from school," says Juliet Kaira-Chibuta of the Zambia National Women's Lobby. "The sooner we get rid of it, the better."

Mildred Mpundu is a former Times of Zambia journalist based in Lusaka.

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11/03/2004

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