“Nja kukuba!” The words ring out almost everyday at home, and are usually followed by the sound of running feet as the child in question decides to flee from the scene as quickly as possible. “Nja kukuba” means “I’ll beat you” in Luganda, and it’s by no means an empty threat. One of the hardest things to stomach as a volunteer in a host family or school environment is the disciplinary methods of parents and teachers. Although beating in schools is technically against the law in Uganda, it is not seriously enforced, and there is no law against corporal punishment being used in the home either.
According to the latest Unicef report, published last week, about two thirds of children worldwide between ages 2 and 14 (almost 1 billion) are subjected to physical punishment by their caregivers on a regular basis. And yet, only about one third of adults worldwide believe that physical punishment of some kind is necessary to properly raise or educate a child. In another report by the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children, more than nine out of ten children in Uganda (93.3%) reported having experienced physical violence including caning, slapping and pinching. Of those who experienced physical violence, 16% said it occurred at least once a week and 15% said it occurred daily.
In a survey involving 3,200 children in eight districts in northern Uganda, corporal punishment in the home and at school was identified as one of children’s major safety concerns: 79% of children said they felt unsafe or scared due to beatings at school and 90% said they felt unsafe or scared due to beatings at home. When asked to draw something that made them feel unsafe at home, at school or in the community, more than half of the participants drew pictures of teachers beating children, and children in all regions drew pictures of corporal punishment in the home (WarChild UK Child Safety Report Card: 2012 Regional Report).
But how did the situation get like this? Of course, culture plays a big part in the raising of children, and the pride that is associated with it means that it is not a topic that can be discussed easily. Tradition also makes it difficult for a culture of beating to be abolished, when adults continue to follow the behaviours of those who went before them. An anonymous Nigerian summed this up well in a comment on blog I was reading on the issue, saying, ‘transferred aggression is all too common in our society. Teachers and parents are not exempted and adults in authority tend to abuse the privilege since it is considered rude for a child to talk back or contradict an adult.’ I have definitely experienced this in Uganda, and felt extremely sorry for the child who is beaten for a crime they didn’t commit, or for a silly accident that they already feel bad about (e.g. spilling their hot tea all over themselves).
Women are most likely to use physical punishment on children, but is it just because they are the primary care-givers, or as the anonymous commentator suggested, is it the result of ‘transferred aggression’ from violence/abuse from their husbands, or even their own parents? It shocks me that teenagers and young adults are also quick to use physical punishment on children, sometimes using worse methods such as a stick or shoe in order to inflict the most pain. It’s clear that they are only reinforcing the view that beating and corporal punishment is a ‘privilege’ for those in positions of power over others. Of course, the sad part is that children are suffering across the world because of these practices. One fifth of homicide victims globally are children and adolescents under the age of 20, resulting in about 95,000 deaths in 2012, and slightly more than 1 in 3 students between the ages of 13 and 15 worldwide are regularly bullied in school. Furthermore, the effects of violence against children can last a lifetime, as exposure to violence can alter a child’s brain development damaging their physical, mental and emotional health.
So can this cycle of abuse ever change? It’s hard to say, but at least this latest report from Unicef has succeeded in exposing the hidden truths about the extent of physical violence against children worldwide, and putting this uncomfortable topic on the map to use as a starting point for global transformation. In the words of the UNICEF Executive Director, Anthony Lake, “Violence against children occurs every day, everywhere [but] it is not inevitable. It is preventable — if we refuse to let violence remain in the shadows. The evidence in this report compels us to act — for the sake of those individual children and the future strength of societies around the world.”