A few days ago, a four-year-old boy in Multan suffered temporary hearing loss when he experienced violence at the hands of his teacher for disrupting classroom decorum. In June, a 13-year-old girl died after she was beaten up by her teacher at school. In September 2016, a boy in his early teens was tortured so brutally by his teachers at Cadet College Larkana that he was left bed-ridden and mute. He eventually had to be flown to the US for complex airway reconstruction surgery.
Despite such incidents, the view that violence helps discipline children is still prevalent. This is not just used as defense by teachers who swear by traditional methods but parents also believe that violence at home or, by extension, in the classroom is for the betterment of children and isn’t something questionable. Often, they cite examples from their own childhood to make a case for the power of good old-fashioned disciplining which helped them become the ‘functional’ and ‘responsible’ adults that they are today.
Each time a child’s personhood comes up in discourse, we meet a dead end. The idea is often written off as having a white, bourgeoisie undertone. Can children – given their inexperience, lack of cognitive maturity and capacity for critical reflection and emotional instability –be given the same rights and agency as adults?
This question forms an intriguing part of the contemporary debate on childhood and child rights. However, it should only encourage us to use academic tools to explore the topic further instead of serving as a limitation.
It is important to understand that much of what children experience as the autonomy or freedom that comes with personhood is relational in nature and is, hence, rooted in a child’s relationships with authority figures. An empathetic and humane approach to parenting or teaching is what can help empower children.
By subscribing to obsolete and violent methods of teaching children, this is what we know we have achieved so far: according to a 2010 report by the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (Sparc), up to 35,000 students drop out of high school each year because of corporal punishment and 25 million of our children still remain out of school.
We have to often wait for things to take a turn for the worst in order to conduct a painstaking triage and try to assess the behaviour and traditions at the bottom of these problems. In cultures like ours, social pressure to produce more offspring remain high (the provisional results of the census puts the population at 207.77 million). Among the many reasons for the high rates of population growth, the few frequently cited ones are that children are seen as earning hands rather than mouths to feed and women do not have reproductive rights.
But what kind of social pressure forces one to become a teacher to earn a livelihood? Teaching – especially at the primary level – is a job that requires a great degree of patience and sensitivity in addition to a strong academic background. When it comes to educational institutions within the public sector, inadequate monetary compensation is a major source of frustration and dejection among teachers but the brunt is borne by the students. A study conducted by Alif Ailaan and the Society for the Advancement of Education revealed that 70 percent of schoolteachers surveyed were in favour of corporal punishment for students.
However, Article 25 of the constitution guarantees equality of all citizens before the law and further states that “nothing in this article shall prevent the state from making any special provision for the protection of women and children”.
But then there is the unfortunate existence of Section 89 of the Pakistan Penal Code 1860 which states: “Nothing which is done in good faith for the benefit of a person under twelve years of age, or of unsound mind by or by consent, either express or implied, of the guardian or other person having lawful charge of that person, is an offence by reason of any harm which it may cause, or be intended by the doer to cause or be known by the doer to be likely to cause to that person”.
Even when KP legislated against corporal punishment in 2010, it referred to provisions of this section and allowed for ‘reasonable punishment’ by caregivers.
At the same time, Pakistan is also party to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Article 19 of this convention states that a child must be “protected from all forms of physical and mental violence while in the care of parents and others”. The contradiction between Pakistan’s commitment to the UN and its domestic law is glaringly obvious.
Last month in Lahore, CAN Pakistan on behalf of the Child Rights Movement Punjab held a media briefing on Pakistan’s international commitment around child rights. During the session, Iftikhar Mubarik, a child rights activist, stressed the need to hold policymakers accountable for the translation of Pakistan’s commitments to the UN into action. By ratifying the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1990, Pakistan has an obligation to safeguard child rights.
Among the responses that Mubarik got, one echoed a general scepticism in the rule and implementation of the law in Pakistan – which, of course, was very much rooted in reality.
However, the importance of having appropriate legislative frameworks in place cannot be stressed enough. These frameworks make redress possible. By way of criminalising human rights violations, a society sets the tone for lawful conduct. Taking into account the hate and anger spreading like black mold and consuming the vulnerable segments of society, we are perhaps better helped by appreciating that societal awareness and legislative reforms have to be combined to make progress.
Although Sindh and Gilgit-Baltistan are also representative of a lack of cohesion between the approaches adopted by their governments to issues of child rights violations, they have fared much better than KP in outlawing corporal punishment. While Sindh banned corporal punishment for children under 18 years in workplaces, educational institutions, child care institutions, rehabilitation centres and any other alternative care settings as well as in the juvenile justice system, GB went as far as prohibiting corporal punishment at home and stating that children have “the right to be shown respect for personality and individuality and shall not be made subject to corporal punishment or any other humiliating or degrading treatment”.
On a societal level, we are perhaps not even willing to discuss child rights. We are keen on preserving our culture as it was passed down to us. But there is a need to ask if the prevailing social norms are the kind that we want to continue to uphold or if we even identify with them. After all, culture isn’t stationary. It keeps evolving and is shaped by human interaction. Ultimately, we hold the power to make changes and we decide what we want to carry on.
It is only fitting that we assess the ‘tradition’ that we are so hung up on preserving as a society. Who stands to lose from criminalising the practice of hiring child maids or having corporal punishment banned at school or home? Who, in effect, stands to lose from treating children as humans?
Giving up privilege can be uncomfortable and may even seem counter-intuitive in the moment – especially when it means making space for members of society who often lack the vocabulary to articulate their contentions and sufferings. But it is necessary to create a more just and humane society.
The writer is an assistant editor at The News on Sunday.