Motion against beating of schoolchildren for intense debate
By Andre Haynes
December 7, 2006
Parliamentarians will today debate a controversial corporal punishment motion which has galvanized much public comment and will require the new government to state its position on the matter.
The motion by Alliance For Change member Chantelle Smith is being strongly supported by civic groups and concerned citizens, who have been lobbying MPs to support the ban.
Smith's motion calls for the National Assembly to declare the continued use of corporal punishment in schools to be a violation of Article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was ratified by the Guyana Government in 1991. As a result, she is asking that the Parliament declare it a violation of the constitution and to recommend the abolition of corporal punishment under the new Education Act.
Article 19 of the CRC says, "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, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child." Additionally, the Committee of the Convention on the Rights of the Child has consistently proposed the abolition of corporal punishment when the reporting process under the convention has revealed the continued existence of school corporal punishment.
Currently, Guyana's Education Act provides for head teachers or an assistant teacher over 20 years of age to administer corporal punishment on students for serious or repeated offences. It says too that whenever a head teacher authorises an assistant teacher to administer corporal punishment, it must be done in the presence of the head and under his direction. The law requires an entry on the same day in the punishment book detailing the nature and extent of the penalty along with the reason for it.
But there have been questions about the usefulness of the guidelines, which some have described as a failure. Nonetheless, the Education Ministry's public posture has been that corporal punishment must be administered in schools, although in strict compliance with guidelines. Deputy Chief Education Officer Roopnarine Tewari recently said that the Ministry will not condone breaking the law and physical punishment is a last resort for teachers for the maintenance of discipline and order. Tewari told the Government Information Agency (GINA) that the Ministry is "doing everything it can" to ensure that corporal punishment is properly administered and he mentioned that several teachers have been sent before the disciplinary committee of the Teaching Service Commission for physically punishing students without permission from the school head, or from the senior staff.
New Minister of Human Services Priya Manickchand did, however, indicate that there were perceptible shortcomings in the system and she seemed to favour a more progressive approach to the issue when she called for the debate on corporal punishment to be reopened. The Minister, at the local launch of the UN Secretary General's study on violence against children, described the current system as ineffective and she noted that many cases of abuses by teachers have been found. "Let's do this thing fairly, don't pass around a paper to children to ask them whether they want to be beaten in school or not," she said.
Manickchand was referring to one of the approaches used two years ago when the National Commission on the Rights of the Child (NCRC) was looking at physical punishment in schools and in the home. Her contribution to today's debate would be highly anticipated.
The NCRC's work however culminated in June 2004 at a two-day National Workshop on Discipline without Beating, where both adults and students agreed that corporal punishment should be retained in the school system. The workshop was conducted by the NCRC in collaboration with the Ministry of Education and the United Nations Children's Fund. Apart from the retention of corporal punishment, it was also agreed that guidance programmes should be created in schools and stakeholders should examine why corporal punishment is not used in some schools. A number of Christian churches, most notably Pentecostal and Evangelical churches, supported the retention of the practice.
The AFC has noted the support for corporal punishment, but it says that this is largely because parents and teachers have not been provided with alternative methods of disciplining children. It points out that in recent years there have been several incidents where children have been seriously injured by teachers and head teachers who were administering corporal punishment. As a result, it says the Ministry of Education must take the lead in ensuring that no more children are placed in this position by abolishing corporal punishment in schools and providing information and training on alternative forms of discipline for teachers and caregivers.
To this end, groups like the local human rights watchdog have been lobbying MPs to support the motion. In a letter sent to MPs, the Guyana Human Rights Association's executive secretary Vidushi Persaud says Smith's motion clearly provides an opportunity for the National Assembly to provide political leadership for the country by removing a shameful practice. She stressed that "there are no respectable arguments left for retaining corporal punishment in our schools" and hoped that the opportunity would not be lost by placing partisan considerations, "much less pandering to fundamentalists, above the health, welfare and physical and emotional integrity of our children."
The human rights group, in its "Proposals for the Abolition of Corporal Punishment in the Guyana Education System," maintains that the practice is akin to violence against children and is illegal in keeping with the country's obligations under the UN CRC. It says beating a child is abusive, while adding that it demeans teachers and fosters no positive values whatsoever. It feels that the practice has survived in Guyana because the concept of a child as a human person in his/her own right is outweighed by authoritarian notions of children as property of adults, whose character is to be shaped by fear, pain and suffering. However, it says abolishing corporal punishment would help to dissolve the image of indecisiveness and ambivalence about violence in general which the Government has attracted. It adds that such responsible leadership would also challenge rather than pander to the violence-oriented elements in the society.
In 2001 a Committee of the Ministry of Education and citizens convened by the Chief Education Officer proposed a policy to phase out the use of corporal punishment in a positive manner, respectful of all affected persons and which educates the society in general how to move forward humanely. As a result, the group says it is clear that both the political and professional leadership of the Ministry has been prepared for several years to take the step to abolish corporal punishment. They should now be given the overwhelming political support of Parliament to implement such a policy.
The group notes that the current practice is justified by colonial legislation (Reg.37/1943) put in place originally for use in "Training (Correctional) Institutions", not schools. It says safeguards to ensure corporal punishment be used in a measured way, as a last resort have decisively failed. It observed that the last five years have witnessed instances of young - mainly primary age - school children suffering broken bones, lacerations and other disfigurements from corporal punishment by teachers. Additionally, it says the average school environment negates the conditions necessary for discretionary use of violence, particularly the absence of an integrated system of educational values, stressful conditions of work (over-crowded classes, low salaries etc), and teachers poorly trained in management of pupils and an increasingly violent larger society.
Moreover, it was pointed out that since 1991 Education regulations have set out alternative forms of punishment, namely: specific tasks or assignments, detention, loss of privileges and denial of concessions. Also, in June 1993 the Chief Education Officer issued a circular, stating that corporal punishment by teachers has often been administered for unsatisfactory work. He explained that the responsibility for really poor work in most cases rests upon the teacher or, when attendance is irregular, upon the parents. However, he said that in neither case is punishment of the child likely to have any beneficial effect whatever. On the contrary, he said it tends to make the child resentful while the inefficient teacher will invariably use it as a cloak for his inefficiency.
In October 1996, CARICOM Governments adopted The Belize Commitment to Action for the Rights of the Child. They committed themselves "to review and revise the relevant laws, policies and programmes to fully comply with the letter and spirit of the Convention on the Rights of the Child." In 2001, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recognized that different forms of violence against children, such as corporal punishment, bullying, harassment and abuse, and verbal and emotional abuse were interlinked and that violence in the home and school context reinforced one another. In early 2004 the 35th Session of the UN Committee on the CRC recommended that Guyana should expressly prohibit corporal punishment in schools. The Government of Guyana, in its report to the Committee of the Convention of the Rights of the Child in July of 2002 also noted that enhanced legislation is an integral element in this country's efforts to give tangible effect to the provisions of the CRC. It said too that the Constitutional Reform Commission acknowledged that the provisions of the CRC should inform constitutional provisions to protect children's rights. Added to that, the Oversight Committee for the revised Constitution subsequently accepted the above recommendations and in 2001 these rights were accorded the status of fundamental and human rights in the amended Constitution.
As part of its proposals, the human rights group says the list of "Suggested Alternatives to Corporal Punishment" developed in 2001 by the Education Ministry should be updated, codified and introduced into the school system as soon as possible. It also says educators, parents and children must be assisted to develop positive values of discipline, and these should be reflected in appropriate legislation, particularly the Education Act and the Children's Act. Additionally, it emphasises the need for the Education Ministry to promote a more humane environment in the school system. To this end, teacher training that incorporates appropriate courses to address issues of resolving conflict and stress management has been mooted by the group, which also says that violence by teachers must be seen publicly to attract serious penalties.
In addition to the lobby from the human rights group, the Spirit of Guyana and concerned individuals have also thrown their weight behind the motion. The groups say they are treating the issue as the start of a new campaign to end the abuse. Among the supporters for the group are former PPP/C Labour and Education Minister Dale Bisnauth, women's activist Magda Pollard, Major General (rtd) Joe Singh and the Guyana Citizens Initiative, Agnes Jones, coordinator of the Education Ministry's Nursery Education Programme, Education officer Olga Bone, Phyllis Carter, members of Red Thread, Help and Shelter, Mothers In Black, and the Alicea Foundation.