Why stop at corporal punishment?

Corporal punishment in schools has been banned by a court but in a country where a big percentage of the population lives under the poverty level, safety of children will be difficult to enforce

An honourable superior court in Pakistan has recently forbidden the use of corporal punishment in schools. Of course it was said and is probably still being said: Spare the rod, spoil the child. Enforcing discipline in almost any environment can be difficult especially if you are dealing with a number of boisterous young people. But I believe that that physical punishment of school children is unwarranted.

Personally, I was lucky that I went through most of my school years without having any serious physical punishment. For the first couple of years I attended the Convent of Jesus and Mart (CJM) in Lahore. Yes, the CJM was co-ed until KG 3 in the old days. Next, I went on to an English medium school in Lahore that was also co-ed and like the CJM had only female teachers.

So I suppose female teachers were less inclined to do much physical harm to male school children—thank heavens for eastern female modesty—and do much to the female students in front of their male classmates. However, there were times when my knuckles were rapped and I was asked to stand outside the classroom.

Both of my sisters went through the CJM and never reported any serious physical punishment except perhaps a foot ruler being hit on the hand. Though, I must admit that my older sister at least was a definite ‘teacher’s pet’.

My contemporary male friends who attended a much larger boys-only religious school in Lahore where almost all of the teachers were male priests often told horrifying stories of rather extreme forms of corporal punishment at the hands of their teachers. And of course any complaints to the parents for them was not of much use since the response probably was, you deserved it and perhaps a smack or two might have been added for good measure.

All those years ago, children were often hit/spanked or otherwise beaten in the name of discipline even at home. So receiving corporal punishment in school was not considered too much out of place since teachers were considered in place of parents when at school.

There is an observation I made many years ago while reading English history and the tradition of severe corporal punishment in even their elite schools. After being brutalized in places like Eton and Harrow many of those students after growing up went on to brutalise much of the world in Britain’s name. And that perhaps might have led to the rise of the British Empire.

As I thought about this issue I started getting distracted by what else happens to children in Pakistan other than getting smacked about in school. A few quick comparisons between how children are treated in Pakistan as compared to what happens to them in the United States (US) these days.

After being brutalised in places like Eton and Harrow many of those students after growing up went on to brutalise much of the world in Britain’s name. And that perhaps might have led to the rise of the British Empire.

It is a common sight to see an entire family, including a few children, being carried on a motorcycle, or children sitting in a car without proper car seats or seatbelts. In the US that sight would lead to the parents being arrested for child endangerment and the children probably placed in foster care. But in Pakistan we are indeed rather cavalier about child safety.

There are however other areas where children are at much greater risk that in my humble opinion are infinitely more important than corporal punishment in schools. Almost half of children of school going age in Pakistan do not attend school. I suppose some mild corporal punishment might be acceptable for many of them if they could get an education.

And then there is the problem of ‘stunting’ in young children that approaches almost 40 percent in Pakistan. Stunting is a term used for children that are below normal height and weight for their age. This is almost always due to inadequate food intake starting as early as a few months after birth. What we see in Pakistan is ‘under’ nutrition rather than starvation. Under nutrition and the resultant stunting produce children who when in school are not able to learn properly and grow up into adults who are unable to compete in the job markets and become useful citizens.

Another place where children are at risk is as domestic servants. Every so often we have cases where female children that serve as domestic servants are beaten mercilessly for minor or perceived infractions, and even killed in the process. When we look at the numbers of children out of school, many of the girls and some of the boys find domestic employment. And many of the boys work in roadside eateries and workshops.

I am sure that many of us have stopped at a ‘paan’ (betel leaf) and soda shop and had young boys not only serving us but are also selling flower ornaments and other doodads. And we have also seen a begum sahiba and friends having a meal at a posh restaurant while a young female servant is minding the small children in a corner.

Clearly there is no way that this form of child abuse can be monitored or prevented. And let there be no doubt about it. Employment of these children either in a home or in an unregulated work environment is nothing but child abuse. And much ‘corporal punishment’ is meted out to these children than even that ‘offered’ by the most sadistic teacher in a regular school.

I am sure that laws exist about employment of children but then even our constitution sort of asks all children of school going age to be in school. Sadly even if a superior court took notice that so many children are out of school, there is nothing much any judge can do to change that. The same about under nourishment and stunting.

Finally, now to a difficult and painful subject, that of sexual abuse of children. A few years ago whenever I saw a picture of little Zainab who had been sexually assaulted and murdered I would feel as if little Zainab was going to push a hand right through my chest and rip my heart right out. Fortunately such predatory sexual abuse is rare. More common is abuse that is often frequent and rarely discovered if at all until quite late in a child’s life.

The Roman Catholic Church is still reeling from the disclosure of persistent sexual abuse of children by many of its priests. We hear occasional rumblings of a similar sort of a problem in our residential religious seminaries (madrassas) but there has been no effort to investigate such accusations.

Here I want to state most forcefully that in my opinion most priests in the Catholic Church and teachers in our madrassas are decent and honourable men that only have the best interests of students or other children under their supervision at heart. But sadly such abuse does happen and if reported, it must be properly investigated.

To sum it up, it is good that corporal punishment in schools has been banned by a court. But in a country where a significant percentage of the population lives at or under the poverty level, safety of children will be difficult to enforce. Though I do wish we could somehow just make poverty disappear.

The writer has served as Professor and  Chairman, Department of Cardiac Surgery, King Edward Medical  University

Ban on corporal punishment a step towards child safety in Pakistan