Exploring alternatives to corporal punishment
Children to voice opinion at ‘Discipline Without Beating’ caucus By Linda Rutherford
Guyana Chronicle
May 30, 2004

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`As always, we want to hear from the children. We want to know how they feel about being beaten, and to see what they propose as alternatives.’ - First Lady Varshnie Jagdeo

`I think the idea of this workshop is to really open up a dialogue and to explore alternatives, and not take some kind of missionary zeal and say this is what should happen.’ - Dr. Brian O’Toole

AS THE debate over the merits and demerits of corporal punishment picks up steam, some 30 children drawn from primary and secondary schools countrywide will be given the opportunity to have their say on the matter when a two-day workshop convenes here mid next month at Le Meridien Pegasus Hotel.

The June 16–17 caucus, which is not as novel as it sounds and is expected to see as many as 150 participants, is being convened by the National Commission on the Rights of the Child (NCRC) headed by First Lady Varshnie Jagdeo. It will have as its focus the premise of ‘Discipline Without Beating’.

The whole purpose to the exercise, the First Lady said at a press briefing yesterday, is “to explore alternatives to corporal punishment in the homes and schools, as well as reflect on the escalating violence in society and consider ways such violence can be reduced.”

Noting that her organisation - which she was at pains to explain was in no way affiliated to the Ministry of Human Services and Social Security where it is currently housed, but an autonomous body - was willing to work with all relevant agencies so as to engender change, Ms. Jagdeo said that similar workshops are being planned for the townships of New Amsterdam and Anna Regina, in the counties of Berbice and Essequibo respectively, and at Linden, Mabaruma and Bartica in Regions Ten (Upper Demerara/Berbice), One (Barima/Waini) and Seven (Cuyuni/Mazaruni) respectively.

As to what role the children are expected to play in deciding whether corporal punishment should be abolished or not, Ms Jagdeo said: “As always, we want to hear from the children. We want to know how they feel about being beaten, and to see what they propose as alternatives.”

According to Chief Education Officer (CEO), Mr. Ed Caesar, who is a member of the Commission and was at the briefing, which was held at the National Communications Network (NCN) television station on Homestretch Avenue, it would not be the first time that children were involved in decision-making.

Similar workshops involving children, he said, were held in the past by the Ministry of Education during consultations on what is commonly referred to as Social and Sensitive Issues such as those pertaining to aspects of sex and race.
Coming out of that experience, he said, was another novelty which speaks to the whole question of promoting ‘Student Governance’ in schools, whereby it is the students who dictate how their schools should be managed and not the adults.

Among schools at which one may see the effect of good ‘Student Governance’ at work, Caesar said, are St. Stephens Primary in the city and some schools in the rural community of Buxton on the East Coast of Demerara.

At those schools at reference, he said, “you will see young people taking charge of things in school. For instance, it is a child who will ask whether they could help you and escort you to the head-teacher’s office; or ask about your interest in the school.”

This time around, however, the discourse takes on a decidedly different slant, in that it will examine such pertinent issues as: ‘Why a Workshop on Discipline Without Beating’; ‘What is Corporal Punishment’; and ‘The Consequences of Corporal Punishment’.

Other topics will include the Ministry’s position on the Law governing corporal punishment; ‘Effective Parenting Without Violence’; and ‘Creating a Violence-free Society’, Caesar said.

There is to also be presentations from the Legal community as to their position on the whole question of corporal punishment, as well as a panel discussion involving “some very important functionaries.”

Caesar said that in addition to reacting to suggestions from the floor and making presentations under the sub-theme: ‘My View of Corporal Punishment’, schoolchildren and young people in general will have the opportunity of voicing their opinion on the subject of corporal punishment, using drama as one means of getting their message across.

“So, throughout the workshop, our young people will be given an opportunity to contribute. And this is what we want,” he said.

Caesar said that at the end of the day, it is hoped that the resultant report will be widely circulated so as to give those persons who were not privy to attend the workshop the opportunity of making their input.

Also in the works, both the NCRC Chair and Caesar said, are essay, art and other competitions, as well as a nation-wide signature campaign which is to be launched during the workshop, and involve not only schools, but every conceivable organisation there is in the country.

According to the First Lady, the findings of both the workshop and the campaign are to be handed to Education Minister, Dr Henry Jeffrey, whom it is anticipated will, in turn, take it to Cabinet “so that we can have it look at the Law and what the nation is saying and re-open the debate on corporal punishment.”

And, with reference to the ongoing exchange the subject has engendered since it was first brought to the public’s attention when, on at least two occasions, children were severely traumatised as a result of severe beatings at the hands of their teachers, Dr Brain O’Toole who is Director of School of the Nations, one of the country’s more prominent private schools, commented on the direction the argument has since taken.

“It’s been interesting….. to note how emotional this debate has become. Clearly, people feel extremely strongly about it,” Dr O’Toole said, adding that “there is a great deal of passion in the way people are presenting their ideas, but…. very little evidence of people really listening and trying to understand the point of somebody else.”

Referring to an article yesterday in the ‘Letters’ column of one of the daily newspapers which suggests that adults shouldn’t listen to children, O’Toole said: “That’s exactly contradictory to what the whole UN (United Nations) movement is espousing right across the world. So I think this is an attempt to really redress some of the imbalance and to listen to one another and to see if out of this discussion we can come up with some ideas about how we should move forward.”

According to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, out of which the idea of having such a workshop was born and to which Guyana is a signatory, “the act of inflicting corporal punishment constitutes an act of violence against children.”

Article 28:2 of the Convention, said to have specific bearing on what transpires at schools, clearly states “that all appropriate measures should be taken to ensure that school discipline should be administered in a manner consistent with a child’s human dignity.”

As the First Lady clearly said in her statement, the Convention, and by association the NCRC, is neither against discipline nor is it a liberation charter.

“It does not remove the right of parents to discipline children, and it’s not challenging parental authority,” she stressed.

The challenge to the nation, therefore, she said, was to explore how best “we can administer effective discipline and maintain a child’s human dignity.”

Clearly amenable to the whole notion of dialogue and consultation in dealing with such delicate matters, O’Toole said: “I think the idea of this workshop is to really open up a dialogue and to explore alternatives, and not… take some kind of missionary zeal and say this is what should happen.”

Rather, he suggests taking a closer look at some of the very situations to which Caesar referred in relation to “how schools could be run very efficiently; without any violence; without any beating; and try to understand what methods are they using that allows them to function without any teacher being allowed to use the rod….”