Is there an end in sight to corporal punishment?

Patrick Katuwa nearly dropped out of school in the southern Malawi district of Chiradzulu this year. He claims to have sustained a swollen leg after a teacher at the school [name withheld] caned him for making noise in class.

On that day, 13-year-old Patrick had returned to class after a week’s absence because of illness, but says his teacher did not believe him.

“I think he was angry because when I explained that I was actually asking my friend about something he was teaching us about, he said if I had not been absent, I would have known it,” he says.

Patrick, like other learners in the country, is a victim of corporal punishment. Although school authorities deny knowledge of its application, statistics prove otherwise.

For example, a study by the National Statistics Office [NSO] conducted in March 2011 revealed that one fifth of 4 500  primary school children sampled had experiences which made them afraid to go to school, 10 percent of them cited violent corporal punishment and 20 percent mentioned ill-treatment by the head or teachers.

Another study by the Malawi Human Rights Commission in 2007 found that despite prohibition, corporal punishment is still happening in schools across the country.

“Yes, it exists. Although not all teachers do it, the practice is real. Sometimes, learners are accused of theft and being rude to teachers,” says Edward Gama, a Blantyre Teachers Training College student who recently completed his teaching practice.

He adds teachers usually beat or cane learners as a last resort as some of the children are stubborn.

“I think ignorance of the laws is also a problem. Oftentimes, parents would come complaining. The teachers would be taken to the discipline committee first before engaging them in discussions involving the head teacher and parents,” says Gama.

Why do teachers do it?

“Some learners come late for classes. When you advise them not to make noise, they don’t listen. Others cannot write homework pretending you never gave them. What else then?” says Mervin Phiri, a teacher from Chiradzulu.

He says while some people may turn a blind eye to the practice, it is still being practised in most rural schools.

Another reason, according to human rights lawyer Mandala Mambulasa, is that those who profess the Christian faith may use the Bible, which seems to encourage caning in Proverbs 29:15, as justification for their action.

Mambulasa is on record as having said such people may have problems in determining whether the Bible should take precedence over the Constitution, which outlaws corporal punishment.

“The Constitution of Malawi outlaws corporal punishment. However, the section that does so has not been a subject of interpretation by our courts as far as I was able to ascertain.  The Penal Code (Amendment) Act also outlaws corporal punishment. It may, therefore, be concluded that corporal punishment, by whatever name it is called, caning or whatever, is clearly unlawful as the law views it as cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment,” he said.

For local human rights watchdogs, the legality and practice of corporal punishment of children breaches learners’ fundamental rights to respect for their human dignity and physical integrity.

“This also infringes on equal protection under the law, and the right not to be subjected to torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. These rights are guaranteed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other international human rights instruments,” says Victor Mhango of Centre for Human Rights Education Advice and Assistance [Chreaa].

Surveys by Civil Society Education Coalition [Csec] also reveal that although the 2010 Children Protection Act is in place, there is little that has been done to deal with the issue.

“While corporal punishment is not allowed, we still get such reports from as far as Dowa, Mchinji, Kasungu, Nkhata Bay and Chiradzulu, among other districts. The practice is real even in some of the country’s private schools,” says Benedicto Kondowe, executive director of Csec.

He says there is need for a legal and education stakeholders meeting to see how best the issue can be dealt with the issue since it leads to increased dropout rates and is part of human rights abuse.

“Government banned this practice, but we are mindful that learners misbehave and the best way of dealing with them is lighter punishments such as suspension from classes or school,” says Kondowe.

He adds that Csec is yet to compile fresh data on dropout rates associated with corporal punishment in schools across the country.

But Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Education John Bisika says the issue is illegal and that if teachers indulge in the malpractice, they would face the law.

He adds that government would investigate the matter to deal with teachers involved in it.

“Learners should be given lighter sentences in line with our policies and not beating pupils because that is assault,” says Bisika.

Mambulasa agrees that other than caning, there are other forms of punishment that may be administered to pupils or students with equal or even more effective result.

“Corporal punishment cannot stand contextual interpretation as it may amount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. In the upshot, administering corporal punishment is clearly unlawful and not good at all for all human beings and using the current theoretical approaches, the Constitution would have to take precedence over Proverbs 29:15,” said Mambulasa.

Globe Initiative, an international organisation says legally, corporal punishment can be enforced only in homes, non-state run care institutions and in non-institutional forms of care.

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