Last month, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) took a strong stand against corporal punishment – a position that could have far-reaching consequences for children’s rights.
What started as a dispute about a church’s promotion of physical chastisement will lead to a ban on corporal punishment in the home if Cabinet follows the commission’s recommendations and initiates a process that will make it illegal for parents and caregivers to hit children. The commission has requested that such legislation be enacted within the next 12 months.
The SAHRC took more than three years to finalise its response to the Joshua Generation Church case, but its report shows the decision was not taken lightly. It examined international, regional and South African law and its legal arguments are sound: corporal punishment, however light, violates the “best interest of the child” principle in our Constitution. It also violates their right to be free from maltreatment, neglect, abuse and degradation, their right to freedom and security of the person, and their right to dignity.
At present, parents can raise the defence of “reasonable chastisement” if charged with assault for disciplining a child. Such a defence is not available if physical violence is used on adults. The common law thus provides less protection for children than for adults. The commission points out that this is a remnant of a value system based on “societal norms and patriarchal systems that regard children as having a lesser standing than adults”. This defence goes against the values of human dignity, equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms enshrined in our Constitution.
In addition to the law, we need to understand the social costs of corporal punishment. The physical consequences are painfully obvious and it can also lead to depression and anxiety – conditions that may persist into adulthood.
Elizabeth Thompson-Gershoff, a United States-based researcher on corporal punishment, says: “When parents use physical means of controlling and punishing their children, they communicate … that aggression is normative, acceptable and effective – beliefs that promote social learning of aggression.”
South African research shows that boys who have been physically abused in childhood are at an increased risk of becoming perpetrators of violence as adults.
Link to child abuse
Corporal punishment is different from physical abuse, argues its proponents. The commission was right not to accept this argument. Evidence from the US and Canada clearly demonstrates the link between corporal punishment and child abuse. In many instances child abuse starts as, or occurs during, corporal punishment.
Canadian studies show that 75% of cases involving the physical abuse of children occurred during episodes of discipline using corporal punishment, and that children who were spanked by their parents were seven times more likely to be severely assaulted by their parents.
In South Africa, where about 500 children die every year as a result of child abuse and neglect, we should stop questioning an already proven link and be proactive in teaching parents alternative forms of discipline.
Of course, a law that prohibits corporal punishment in the home will not end it. It will not change people’s mind-sets or prevent violence against children for as long as we fail to address the drivers of physical violence such as poverty, alcohol and drug abuse, caregiver stress, and family violence. But a legal prohibition is a necessary first step.
Stefanie Röhrs is a senior researcher at the Children’s Institute, University of Cape Town.