Fundamental Protection of the Child Before the Fancy Stuff


It is not “acceptable that a society which prohibits any form of physical violence between adults would accept that adults subject children to physical violence.”

European Committee of Social Rights, 2001

It’s often strange to me that we live, today, in a world obsessed to the point of ignoring almost all else with equality on the grounds of gender (including sexual orientation) and race/ religion. Included in the “all else” here are the rights of children.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) came in to effect in September 1990. Most member countries of the UN have adopted the convention (with the exception of the USA, which signed, but has never ratified). Within that convention Article 19.1: “States Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation . . . .”

With all of that in mind, it might seem like the issue of corporal punishment in schools was no longer a matter for debate or discussion. However, that’s very clearly not the case. It seems not to matter how much weight of evidence builds up about how children are traumatised and learning is inhibited when they experience any kind of fear or physical punishment. In too many parts of the world people will still rationalise and find reasons to justify the continuation of such incomprehensible and unjustifiable practices.

Many of the countries where corporal punishment is defended make arguments based upon religious or cultural precedent for the physical chastisement of children. However, the same religious writings frequently advocate the keeping of slaves and the subservience of women! Society has proved, throughout the world, perfectly capable of modernising its reading and interpretation of religious texts as humankind’s perceptions of right and wrong, ethics and morals, evolve. In fact, it’s embarrassingly shameful to have to concede that there’s often a strong correlation between those countries and the former reaches of the British Empire. It was often the British who imposed corporal punishment in the schools they established, this having its roots in a certain puritanical brand of British Christianity.

Here in Malaysia, we have the sad situation that few seem to see the flagrant incongruity in a school system that celebrates a Kindness Week (which I applauded in April 2019) whilst still maintaining and using corporal punishment. The message would appear to be – children should be kind to each other, because we say so. However, we the adults are way above considerations of kindness when it comes to exerting our willful power over children. I believe a proper reading of the current law in the country only permits corporal punishment in schools for boys. However, the reality is that girls are also receiving physical punishment, usually with a cane.

Whilst already uncomfortable and unhappy that Malaysia has not yet been able to move on from corporal punishment, I was shocked recently to see the following media report:

Business Insider Malaysia Article – Survey Parent Views on Corporal Punishment

In this research survey, only 20% of Malaysian parents were against corporal punishment use in schools. Nearly half were in favour and a third undecided. Without wanting in any way to be condescending this alarms me as evidence that way too little effort has gone in to sharing with people in the country the realities of the harm done by corporal punishment on the individual child, as well as on the culture of a school or even the overall culture of people in the country.

There have been repeated instances of research around the world, all showing that children with physical, mental or learning disabilities are three to five times more likely to be on the receiving end of corporal punishment. There are also many studies that suggest children of minority communities also become victims more frequently. Nobody suggests that this flows from any kind of deliberate or conscious targeting or persecution. Rather, in the demands made by school experiences, the nature of classrooms, expectations and frustrations they are more likely to cross the lines to show behaviours and actions that lead to such punishments being meted out.

Bringing change requires a multi-pronged approach over time;

a) Sensitising the public to the lack of effectiveness, the harm and potential for abuse afforded by laws and rules that tolerate corporal punishment.
(This needs to also address the more delicate issue of corporal punishment in the home. If more accept that they should not be physically assaulting their own children, then they will naturally be unwilling to accept that others should have any right to do so)

b) Training and sensitizing teachers and education leaders;
(i) in alternative and more effective/ humane methods of maintaining environments with positive behaviour
(ii) about how resorting to physical violence against children goes against the objectives of modern education, and actually contributes to increased violence and aggression in their schools and in the wider society.

The use of violence against children sends a simple message – power lies with the biggest and strongest. That power includes the right to make the rules and to enforce them, regardless of your rights or your will.ย  It dehumanizes. It becomes inevitable that it increases the likelihood that children will use physical violence on those smaller and weaker than themselves (ironically being one of the things that perpetuates male violence against women).

The issue of physical violence (child abuse) against children can be a very challenging issue for international educators to deal with. If a teacher works in a school in the UK has reason to believe that a child might have been subjected to physical harm (by a parent or carer or anyone else) they are duty bound to report it. Failure to do so can even, in the most extreme circumstances, lead to their criminal prosecution.

However, when they go to teach in another country few have thought through the realities they will face. I’ve met plenty of international educators in different countries who were very disturbed when they discovered that on finding bruises or other evidence of physical harm on a child there were almost no courses of action open to them, at least formally. In private school environments I’ve seen and heard evidence that the school authorities, the teacher’s leaders, stopped them from taking action fearing a backlash or negative reaction from parents. In other cases, even where the school leadership took a positive approach, teachers found that attempts to report to any ministry of government could actually worsen the situation for the child and create even greater risk. Teachers working under such circumstances, in their desire to protect the child, may even resort to avoiding sending any negative report or information to the home that could cause them to get further abused.

I recently came across this harrowing Edsurge blog post that highlighted how even teachers in Western countries delivering online tutoring can run up against evidence of child abuse that they find disturbing, especially in their powerlessness to protect the child.

(Click on the link that says – “Bonus Episode: When an Online Teaching Job Becomes a Window into Child Abuse)

There is a historical paradigm of the child as a possession, an asset of the father (or at least the family) and this has tended to perpetuate beliefs that as a person’s possession it is their right to decide how they will deal with it. However, this should not be seen as a block or reason for inaction. Wives were also once upon a time seen the same way – as an asset acquired through marriage, over which a man was entitled for all property rights.

Worldwide, society has made more progress for women than for children, perhaps because women have been able to use their own voice in advocacy. I believe educators need to be more willing to raise their voice for children. Cold, proprietorial mindsets with regard to child abuse also manifest in many of the other ills that plague education; under investment in assets, training, respect for teachers. It even contributes to the failure to act on climate change and global warming, levels of societal debt etc.ย  – all issues that children will be saddled with in the future.

Much of the momentum of what happens and what changes in education flows from the political climate within a country. Here in Malaysia currently i find cause for some worry. Where there is active debate about education its around issues like whether Maths and Science should be taught in English. These types of issues can generate a lot of heat because of religious and nationalistic sensitivities.

New Straits Times – English Language Teaching Article

However, i have sadly seen much less momentum or debate about resolving what are far more foundational and fundamental issues:

Business Insider Malaysia – Malaysia Ranked 71st for Childhood Protection

This article raises issues regarding severe malnourishment, children not attending school. These are pivotal roles for any education system to claim that it treats children with equity and equality of opportunities. Regrettably, this is typical of a wider set of issues worldwide.ย  Under the auspices of the United Nations, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were put in place to replace the earlier goals that were not achieved. However, while there is progress, warnings are already being made that the current pace will see the targets missed again:

Devex – UNESCO Issues Dire Predictions For 2030 Education Targets

One of the biggest challenges is that these are big, challenging issues that require long term plans, solutions and effort. These are unfortunately not the kinds of things that politicians are typically good at – tending to be far more focused on issues that please their ideological supporters and short term issues that yield more immediate and visible results.

I don’t want to suggest that all is doom and gloom. We have moved forward and progress has been made. There are millions of children who have a better life than they would have had otherwise, as highlighted by the detailed and comprehensive review report from Save The Children published recently:

Save The Children – Changing Lives in our Lifetime
(Right click and save to download the adobe pdf report)



Please Vote For Me – Or Else

This documentary, made 12 years ago, but still packed with relevance today is fascinating on so many levels, but also quite scary in terms of the underlying messages. The starting premise is a simple one – a class of 8 year olds who would in the past have had a class monitor imposed upon them by their teacher are to engage in an exercise in democracy to elect their own class monitor.

If you wish to watch the whole film (and it is well worth watching) I recommend you do so before reading any further – major spoiler alerts to follow!

Firstly, this has to be seen in the context of a country where perceptions of democracy and power, and how power is gained, used and retained, are very different to those portrayed in a western context (and therefore part of my upbringing and education). This is an environment where leadership equals power and the question becomes whether that power to control and direct is wielded benevolently or with with bad intent.

These are just children, but influenced and often guided by the adults in their lives their actions mimic the very worst, exploitative, crooked and dishonest machinations of politicians in the adult world. Whether it’s buying the votes, focusing on demeaning and belittling your opponent or plain dishonesty they will take any actions necessary to gain power.

One of the things that stands out for me is the passivity of the teacher. She seems frequently to be fully aware of how brutish, cruel, dishonest and wrong some of the actions are, but seems more than happy to stand passively by and observe. It’s almost as though she wants that these children will finish the process concluding that this democracy thing is hurtful, brutish and bad and be turned against it.

Early in the film the children are heard singing a lyric – “we are the successors of communism,” and we have to remember that this was seen as a time of new beginning, freedoms and liberty for the Chinese people, but many were surely unsure how long it would last, or what they were to do with these new-found freedoms. The power of being class monitor is equated clearly and simply with the right to be a legitimized bully, lauding it over others and making them act in accordance with your wishes. physical force to control others in the classroom or the home is legitimised.

At times it’s not easy to see the emotional pains that these children inflict on each other.ย  The reality is they are very young and some of this is hard to deal with. The presence of the cameras seems to do little to abate what seems to amount to bullying by anyone’s standards. There are clear signs of the pressures to perform and the levels of stress experienced by these children at such a young age. The weight of parental expectations in all their actions lays heavily upon their tiny shoulders.

There are some things that don’t change from one culture to another. the girl is encouraged to be pretty, demure and her emotional vulnerability is accepted. The boys are expected to take much more physical, aggressive and forceful steps and not to show their emotions (though at this age they’re not so good at hiding) – “Dry your tears, you’re big boys.”.

And the end result? Status quo and a level of comfort with the known. The boy Luo Lei who has been class monitor for the last two years is re-elected. These children may be young, but already they come across as bowed down by the responsibilities that self-determination place upon them. This boy may be a bully, a tyrant who rules roughly and with force, but the idea of choice and responsibility sits uncomfortably. with most of them. His winning margin is considerable and even as the votes are still being counted, his classmates begin to curry favour with him in the hope that he will remember they were ‘always on his side.’

The pain and trauma is clear – enough to put any self-respecting child off ideas of independence, self-determination and responsibility. Much easier to let others control life and take the big decisions.

Bullying and Ragging

Last week I got to see the interview I did a few weeks ago with Seema Chandra of NDTV for the ‘No Kidding’ series on NDTV Good Times. By the time i finished watching i felt quite disturbed (and it wasn’t just the realisation that i need to lose some weight and get fit!!). It was not for nothing that NDTV felt the need to preface the programme with a caption stressing that views expressed in the programme were purely those of the participants and not the TV company.

So, what’s got me so troubled? Well, two thirds of the programme consisted of people (including me) talking about prevention of bullying, the unacceptability of ragging, helping victims and improving children’s communication skills so they don’t feel the need to bully.

Then, in the final segment of the programme we got to hear from some children, including a number who attend boarding schools. According to these youngsters;
a) bullying today is not as bad as it used to be (their seniors tell them so)
b) It’s OK as long as nobody gets physically hurt,
c) It’s frequently justified, for example if someone is ‘spoiling the atmosphere’,
d) It’s easy to avoid if you make sure you fit in and ‘play by the rules’,
e) It’s normal for juniors to be made to run errands and other humiliating and belittling stuff, especially if they have put up a weak sports performance for the school,
f) It doesn’t really happen with girls.

Now, do you share my worry and concern? If this group of children were truly representative, then it appears we are bringing up a generation where both the bullies and the bullied have all bought in to the same set of myths – myths based upon survival of the toughest, a cynical belief in a dog-eat-dog world where the winners have the right to win by whatever means, regardless of who gets hurt along the way. Victims should just take it, develop a thick skin so they can take the hurt without it showing (or go out and train themselves up to behave uglier and harsher than the next guy!).

One thing these youngsters need to know – seniors have always told youngsters that “it used to be worse”, “we got it much harder” in order to excuse away their own demeaning, belittling power games. They were doing it when I went to school (and that was a very long time ago!!).

The fact is that bullying and ragging share one basic attribute – it’s about control. In the case of ragging it’s about – “we put up with being controlled, humiliated and subjugated when we were juniors. Now it’s your turn.” Even people in authority will seek to joke away the kinds of initiation rites that new students in colleges are made to go through, all too ready to ‘tut tut’ when the press get hold of pictures or stories and the ugly face of their institutes is revealed for all to see.

In the playground power battle it’s about the ‘in crowd’ making sure that those on the outside know that they are lesser, lower. As for those who want to believe that it doesn’t happen with girls – i say, stop kidding yourselves. Girls may not resort to physical violence so often, but they can have their own ways of controlling, of exerting power that are more subtle and invidious. Name calling, ostracism, passing comments on dress, physique, appearance etc. The reality is girls go for these routes largely because they know that such words can hurt a girl far more than a boy. Many girls take such words to heart and carry them, internalise them and believe them to be the truth about them as a person.

What kind of a world will it be, if every young person grows up believing that their one true measure of success is whether they ‘fit in’, conform to the expected norms set down by the ‘in crowd’, comply and take what comes to them if they step out of line or ‘spoil the atmosphere’ by daring to be different. When geneticists produced Dolly the sheep people worried about biologists and cloning. If our youngsters carry on this way, the biologists won’t have to bother – the young will be turning themselves in to clones willingly.

For those of us who run educational institutes or teach children we have to be concerned when even the victims are justifying away the practices – believing somehow that there is something innately justified in their enforced victimhood.

I believe every student who engages in bullying or who is the victim of bullying becomes in some way stunted in terms of their self worth, their self image. As a result, their ability to fulfill their potential in education, or indeed in life, gets impaired. That can never be a state of affairs that we settle for.

Yes, there are people who live in this world as though it is dog-eat-dog, survival of the strongest. However, such people are usually, in my experience, not the most successful and certainly not the most satisfied with their lives. They practice life from a scarcity mindset, believing that there are finite resources and if they want their desired cut of the cake then they must fight for it, by fair means or foul.

On the other hand there are far more effective role models – people who see life from a mindset that all is plentiful if people share, collaborate, work to their strengths, appreciate the contributions of others, celebrate differentness and find richness in their own lives from being positive towards others.

Am I being too naive and idealistic? Have I missed something, to the extent that the ‘survival of the baddest’ really is the only effective way that our young people will succeed in life?

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