A mother’s quest to stop corporal punishment | Daily News

A mother’s quest to stop corporal punishment

The UNCRC says that corporal punishment is a violation of a child’s rights.
The UNCRC says that corporal punishment is a violation of a child’s rights.

Dr. Tush Wickramanayaka is a family physician, licensed in both Sri Lanka and the United Kingdom, with a long history of helping children in their time of need. Part of her job description, quite literally, is to identify what pains a child and do what she can to fix it. But lately, Wickramanayaka has been using not just medicine but advocacy and activism to try and achieve that goal.

In early March, on International Women’s Day, Wickramanayaka launched “Stop Child Cruelty,” a new organisation aimed at ending corporal punishment of children in schools and beyond. Corporal punishment is defined by the United Nations 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.”

For Wickramanayaka, the issue is personal. She says that in January of this year, her 11-year-old daughter was abused at her school in Colombo, forced to kneel before a teacher as a form of punishment. Wickramanayaka insists this incident was not the first and that the severity of the incidents varies.

But the problem of corporal punishment of children in schools is not hers or her daughter’s alone. According to National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) Chairperson Marini De Livera, the number of official complaints her agency received regarding cruelty faced by children in schools for 2017 was 1,191.

Even these numbers, however, indicate that corporal punishment in Sri Lanka goes vastly under-reported. In May 2017, the NCPA released a report it commissioned, “A Study on Child Disciplinary Methods Practised in Schools in Sri Lanka,” which found levels of corporal punishment among schoolchildren - that is, the rate of students who reported experiencing at least one episode of corporal punishment in the past term - to be a staggering 80.4 percent.

Technically illegal?

Currently, says Wickramanayaka, there is in place a three-tier protection system against corporal punishment of children in schools in Sri Lanka.

The first tier is Penal Code 308/A, which provides for the offense of various forms of cruelty against children. The second tier is Article 11 of the Constitution, which lists as a fundamental right that “No person shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” The third and final tier is the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which Sri Lanka became a party to in 1990 and which declares that “corporal punishment and other cruel or degrading forms of punishment are forms of violence and States must take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to eliminate them.”

Additionally, the Ministry of Education has issued circulars stating that corporal punishment not be used in schools, though this policy as an absolute was never confirmed by a vote in Parliament.

But Wickramanayaka believes that the mere status of corporal punishment of children as unlawful does little to deter those in schools who might commit it. And the rate of corporal punishment in schools found in the NCPA report indicates she is correct.

“Yes, this type of punishment has been outlawed. But many educators commit it or accept that it will be committed because it’s what they were subjected to themselves as children,” she says.

Repeatedly stonewalled

According to Wickramanayaka, the problem is not a lack of fairly adequate laws governing corporal punishment of schoolchildren; the problem is that existing laws are not enforced, either at all or to the degree they should be.

“Even though there are laws in this country, we find it very difficult to implement them because of objections from political or financial or other external pressures to shut investigations down,” she says.

She adds that she faced many barriers when reporting the January incident involving her daughter.

The first barrier for Wickramanayaka was when she went to the women and children’s division at the police station to report the incident. The officer assigned to speak with her told her in Sinhala that “a small punishment is acceptable for children” and reclassified her case as a minor incident.

“With the police, many of whom grew up with corporal punishment as the norm, they see it as an acceptable mode of discipline rather than an unacceptable form of abuse,” she says.

Then she reported the incident to the NCPA, which is duty-bound to accept every complaint. But she insists that just as she filed the report, external pressure to stop the investigation began to pile on. She says her child faces discrimination at the school, which denied the incident took place, and that she herself was blacklisted as a parent.

Wickramanayaka emphasises that she believes the NCPA has good intentions and wants to help, especially Chairperson De Livera. Indeed, as recently as February, the NCPA released a statement to the press stating that it had “initiated a programme to eliminate corporal punishment meted out to children in all settings.”

But Wickramanayaka insists there are political pressures exerted on the NCPA that prevent it from doing its job to the best of its ability.

Finally, Wickramanayaka tried filing a report on her daughter’s behalf with the Human Rights Commission, only to have confidential details of her case, after one month of receiving no response, allegedly divulged to the very teacher she claims is responsible for the abuse. Wickramanayaka subsequently met with varying politicians, including the President, but feels that none of them were concerned enough to do anything.

A cultural rather than legislative change is necessary

Multiple studies have demonstrated the problems with corporal punishment. The American Academy of Paediatrics says it is ineffective at best and harmful at worst. Canadian researchers found that it can cause long-term damage in children, concluding that they are more likely to be depressed, aggressive, antisocial, and anxious. In Sri Lanka, research has indicated that it also correlates with lowered self-esteem and academic performance and a greater tendency toward violence in the future.

So why does it continue to be used as a method to discipline and punish?

Both Wickramanayaka and the NCPA believe the problem, primarily, is cultural, that there are misconceptions across the spectrum - from the teachers allegedly committing this abuse to the police officers who receive complaints and are charged with investigating the apparent incidents. To fix it and “end child cruelty,” as Wickramanayaka’s organisation’s title dictates as her campaign rallying cry, requires not just changing the laws, but changing people’s mindsets about what is and is not acceptable.

As part of its new aforementioned programme to eliminate corporal punishment of children, initiated in February, the NCPA has multiple aims. First, it hopes to sensitise principals and teachers on the laws surrounding the right of children to protection from corporal punishment. Second, it hopes to use awareness-raising methods such as street-drama, interactive workshops, and discussions to alert the public on the problems with such punishment. Finally, it seeks to encourage the general public to alert the NCPA to incidents through its 24-hour child hotline (#1929).

Wickramanayaka, along with her newly founded organisation, has a wider scope which she hopes her advocacy will impact. In addition to ensuring teachers and school administrators understand the illegality of corporal punishment, she wants to prevent police officers from allowing personal biases about what is and isn’t abuse to colour how they investigate a case.

She wants to eliminate political and monetary pressures that prevent investigations from being carried out adequately. Finally, Wickramanayaka, through “Stop Child Cruelty,” seeks to empower children and their parents to seek justice, especially those who may not have the luxury she did, of spare time and energy, to report her case and appeal to multiple different bodies.

“We’d like parents to know, as citizens, what the common law is and to be able to speak up. We will be a voice for them. The more we speak up, the more we begin to say this is wrong, the more they will hear us.”


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