Corporal punishment in schools and elsewhere has ignited a spirited debate on what punishment for students should entail and whether physical punishments should be banned.
The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child last year recommended that Sri Lanka take urgent measures in areas of violence to children, including corporal punishment.
The Committee expressed deep concern over high numbers of children subjected to abuse and violence, including corporal punishment - which remains legal in the home, alternative care settings, penal institutions, as well as in schools - and called on the Government to unequivocally prohibit corporal punishment, however light, in all settings, by law and without any further delay.
Sri Lanka is clearly not alone in this matter. According to UNICEF, four out of five children worldwide aged 2 to 14 are subjected to some kind of violent discipline in their homes. In 2014, UNICEF released the most comprehensive collection of data on violent punishment of children to date. The numbers starkly showed that violent discipline is the most common form of violence in childhood.
On average, the survey data from 62 countries indicated that almost a billion children aged 2-14 had been physically disciplined in the home in the month before the survey was taken. Physical discipline, also known as corporal punishment, is defined by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child as “any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light.”
The effects of many types of violence can be life-long, and can even be passed from generation to generation. Abundant evidence exists to show how violent discipline is associated with – among other negative outcomes – poor mental and physical health later in life, increased violence and aggression, and damage to family relationships.
One interesting revelation in the UNICEF data analysis was that many children are subjected to physical punishment even when adults in the household don’t think it is necessary. This gap may seem illogical but it could be explained by the fact that many parents lack alternative, non-violent methods of discipline.
As of the end of 2014, corporal punishment in the home has been prohibited in 44 countries, in alternative care and day care settings in 50 countries, in schools in 122 countries, and in penal institutions in 130 countries.
The pace of law reform is accelerating rapidly, with many countries adding their names to the list of those that prohibit corporal punishment of children in the home and all other settings.
Sri Lanka's ingrained acceptance of violence could also have links to its post-war social dynamics. Whatever the cause it is time for Sri Lanka to join the march towards progress and create the space for children to grow up without fear and to understand that justice does not need to be achieved with violence.