Blurred Lines? Physical Discipline and Child Abuse: The Case for Legislation to Ban Corporal Punishment

According to UNICEF statistics, around 6 in 10 children worldwide between the ages of 2 and 14 are subject to physical punishment by their parents or caregivers on a regular basis. Such disciplinary practices, also known as corporal punishment, are defined by the United Nations as “any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light” – these include any acts such as kicking, spanking, and pinching children or hitting them with a hand or other tool. Close to a billion children worldwide are reported to be brought up using these disciplinary techniques.

The United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child mandates that all children have the right to protection from all forms of violence, including that inflicted by parents or other caregivers. The convention, which has been ratified by all UN member states save the United States, is further clarified by the Committee on the Rights of the Child as clearly stipulating that “corporate and other cruel or degrading forms of punishment are forms of violence and the state must take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to eliminate them.” Despite the clear stance against corporate punishment in international law, it remains legal in many countries for parents to use physical measures to discipline their children.

A child is spanked in Germany, 1930s, from the German Federal Archives. Corporal punishment was fully outlawed in Germany in 2000, but remains legal in many countries

Many international and national advocacy groups are working to encourage and pressure governments into adopting legal restrictions or bans on the use of corporate punishment in the home. One such group is the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children, an organisation advocating for legal and normative change to prohibit corporal punishment in schools and in the home. Its work has been described by independent investigators as ‘catalytic’ in challenging and prohibiting all forms of violence against children.

The foremost argument against corporal punishment is that it undermines and neglects children’s rights. As described by the Global Initiative, the essence of legal prohibition of corporal punishment is to ensure that children are granted “equal protection under the law on assault, whoever the perpetrator and whether or not the assault is described or justified as discipline or punishment.” As such, the legal prohibition of corporal punishment is an issue of granting children the same legal protection as adults against assault and bodily harm. The Global Initiative and the 61 international organisations that are part of it, alongside countless national groups and individuals, all believe that harming another person is universally wrong, and a parent physically disciplining their child is no exception. As such, the Global Initiative makes clear in its advocacy the fundamental importance of a child’s need for equal protection.

Many studies have been done to try to ascertain the long-term effects of corporal punishment on children. As put by Susan Bissell, Chief of Child Protection at UNICEF, there exists ‘abundant evidence’ that violent discipline in children has been directly linked to increased violence and aggression, damage of family relationships, and poor mental health later in life, to name only the most prominent negative outcomes. Alongside this, there is evidence that it has no corrective results, but serves to normalise violence as an acceptable way to resolve conflict. Corporal punishment, UNICEF has found, is often less of a disciplinary choice and more the result of parents’ frustration, or lack of knowledge of non-violent disciplinary methods. It has been found to be a technique used when parents do not know what to do.

What role does national legislation play in protecting the rights of children? Sweden provides an interesting case. The country was first to outlaw corporal punishment in the home in 1979. It did so by including in its Parenthood and Guardian Code that “children are to be treated with respect to their person and individuality and may not be subjected to corporal punishment or any other humiliating treatment.” The legislation did not include any punitive measures for parents found to break the Code, rather, its was intended to be educational in nature. If parents were found to break the Code, they would be referred to Social Services for guidance and support.

Importantly, the Swedish ban was not the result of public outcry or advocacy. On the contrary, when it was introduced the ban was heavily criticized by the public who believed it meant the government was interfering with family life. However, the Swedish government was adamant that the ban itself would be an important catalyst for changing public practice and opinion. The ban represents an attempt by a government to use legislation to drive a normative change in the fabric of society.

Has the Swedish ban on corporal punishment been successful? Coming up on four decades after its implementation, public opinion in Sweden has drastically shifted. While the majority of Swedish parents in the 1960s were in favour of corporal punishment, the Swedish Radio News report recent polls that show that 90% of Swedes are opposed to even the mildest form of physical discipline.

In the United Kingdom, there are currently no legal prohibitions to corporal punishment in the home. In its most recent periodic report on the state of human rights in the UK, the United Nations Human Rights Committee criticises the UK for its lack of explicit prohibition on corporate punishment. The report urges the UK to “take practical steps, including through legislative measures where appropriate, to put an end to corporal punishment in all settings.” Alongside this, the UK was recommended to promote non-violent forms of discipline and a public awareness campaign was proposed to raise awareness on the harmful effects of corporal punishment.

There are signs that attitudes and behaviour within the UK are moving away from supporting and practicing corporal punishment in the home. Despite this, government-issued surveys have shown that just above half of parents in the UK agree that ‘it is sometimes necessary to smack a naughty child.’ Current legislation under the Children Act of 2004 stipulates that smacking, spanking or otherwise physically disciplining a child is lawful as long as this amounts to ‘reasonable punishment.’ Discipline is automatically deemed ‘unreasonable’ when it causes actual bodily harm to the child, but there is currently no clear distinction available. As such, the distinction between what falls under discipline – and what counts as abuse – remains blurred.

The debate surrounding corporal punishment is somewhat puzzling. While the overwhelming evidence against physical punishments is readily available, the practice remains widespread, and attempts to legally prevent its practice are – more often than not – met with public outcry. In a Huffington Post column, Lisa Belkin rejected the existence of any ‘debate’, saying “… there aren’t two sides. There is a preponderance of fact, and there are people who find it inconvenient to accept those facts.”

As seen in the Swedish case, legislation can be the first step in changing public opinion and practice. The UK, along with many other countries, notably the US and France, may consider the legal route toward changing public opinion and practice. While legal prohibition of corporal punishment may be seen as a drastic move, and is likely to be unpopular among a core group of any population, it might be a necessary step to be considered by governments committed to entrenching children’s rights in both law and practice.

Visit the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment Of Children to find out about legislation and current campaigns in any country in the world. For information about the campaign to end corporal punishment in the UK visit the page of Children Are Unbeatable!

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