Landmark moment for children’s rights in South Africa

COMMENT

The Constitutional Court will this week consider the constitutionality of the use of corporal punishment in the home. The court prohibited beatings in detention settings in 1995 and in schools in 2000.

At present, the common law defence of “reasonable chastisement” allows parents to hit their children as a form of discipline. The central question before the court on November 29 is whether this practice violates children’s rights.

The case is an appeal to a judgment by the high court in Johannesburg, which struck down the defence of “reasonable chastisement” in October last year. The high court found that a defence that allows parents to discipline their children physically violates children’s rights and that the protection of children from all forms of violence is critical in our context of alarmingly high levels of violence.

The judgment reinforced submissions by the Children’s Institute, the Peace Centre and Sonke Gender Justice — all represented by the Centre for Child Law — which had underlined the link between corporal punishment and other forms of violence.

Research shows that even mild forms of corporal punishment can lead to a number of negative outcomes for children. “Corporal punishment which people consider to be ‘light’ or ‘normal’, such as smacking and spanking, can have negative effects on children,” said Carol Bower, of the Peace Centre. “The use of such punishment increases children’s aggressive behaviour. Children who are smacked or spanked are, for instance, more likely to act out against other children.”

The Constitutional Court case is an opportunity to reflect on child discipline. Divya Naidoo, child protection programme manager at Save the Children South Africa, highlights the importance of using positive discipline. “Discipline does not mean punishment. Corporal punishment may result in immediate compliance, but does not lead to self-discipline and, in fact, often results in repeated misbehaviour. Positive discipline, on the other hand, is about guiding and teaching a child to develop understanding, self-discipline and long-term changes in behaviour.”

Positive discipline is not an alternative form of punishment: it avoids the use of punishment. It assumes that children want to behave well, but need help in understanding how to do so, and that children learn best through co-operation.

Parents might need help to learn new ways of raising children and civil society organisations offer ­parenting courses.

Carmen de Vos, senior social worker at the Parent Centre, says: “Key to instilling a sense of discipline in the child is a good parent-child relationship. The Parent Centre provides parents and caregivers with the necessary support to develop a positive relationship with their child and to use positive parenting.”

Although caregiving and disciplining children is still primarily the role of women, Wessel van den Berg, children’s rights and positive parenting unit manager at Sonke Gender Justice, says fathers also play an important role in the change in parenting practices by stepping out of the stereotypical role of being the disciplinarian.

Nondumiso Mbaxa, chief social worker at the Umtata Child Abuse Resource Centre, stresses the importance of not only working with parents.

“In order to make change in our society, we need to change the mind-set of our leaders towards children. Our organisation uses the children’s rights community development project to empower community leaders in promoting children’s rights. This is a collaborative process with the purpose of involving everyone in caring for children and protecting them from any form of abuse.”

Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana, general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, emphasises that: “Any violent act against a child would be at odds with the attitude of Jesus Christ on children.

“Moreover, the use of violence by parents when children irritate or frustrate them teaches children that one is supposed to act violently against what one dislikes — that is the very fountain of the endemic culture of violence in our society.”

This is a joint press release by respondents and interested parties in the case of YG v State — the Children’s Institute, the Peace Centre, Sonke Gender Justice, the Centre for Child Law, Save the Children SA, the Parent Centre and the Global Initiative to End All Forms of Corporal Punishment

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