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Corporal punishment violating child’s rights

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Recently, there have been stories in the press of children whose rights have been violated by teachers. Teachers, like most adults in the society, find it impossible to accept that children are equally entitled, as adults, to enjoy human rights. Over the years, teachers have beaten and even brutalized children with impunity. Who remembers the children whose heads were flushed in the toilet by the principal in a prestige school in Port-of-Spain, or the children whose mouths were washed out with household detergent by the principal in San Fernando? We have seen the bruises and we have heard the tears, but no one cares, or very few do, because it is considered that the teacher is disciplining the children “for their own good.”

TTUTA was quick to condemn the action of the Tobago parent who, literally, took matters into her own hands. We all agree that the parent was wrong. TTUTA, however, did not also take the opportunity then, to remind teachers that corporal punishment of children by teachers was against the law and was a violation of the rights of the child. Thankfully, the TTUTA head has now recognized his duty to remind teachers of the law against corporal punishment.

Since 1991, T&T ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. To fulfil our obligations under the Convention, our new Children Act, which expressly prohibits corporal punishment of children by teachers, came into force in May 2015. Corporal punishment is, however, still alive and well in some schools in T&T. Long before these recent reports surfaced, I had been monitoring the situation and knew from students to whom I had spoken and some parents who had complained to me, that this was a live issue. As a result of one of the reports I had received, I met with a principal. She was, shortly afterwards, able to avail herself of a scholarship to attend my training course in restorative practices.

Teachers are privileged people in the society. Despite what we read in the newspapers, teachers do enjoy a measure of respect and wield a tremendous amount of power. They can make or break a child. Many children carry, throughout their lives, the physical and emotional hurt inflicted on them by teachers. An elderly nun related to me that, whenever she visited a particular bank in Port-of-Spain, a past pupil looked at her with great hostility. She said she wanted to go to the woman and say to her,” My dear, whatever I did to you to hurt you, I am sorry. Please forgive me.” I regret not offering to facilitate a restorative conversation between the two parties before the death of the nun and I hope that the person reads this and experiences healing. My relationship with that nun was filled with pleasant memories. I distinctly recall a teacher physically punishing me unfairly, and sending me to her for further punishment. When I explained the circumstances, the nun was incensed at the injustice I had suffered and told me to return to class immediately.

The story about the teacher who cut or rather “zogged” the child’s hair was very disturbing. It involved both physical and psychological abuse. That child was humiliated before his schoolmates. He will never forget that. Psychological harm runs deep in one’s psyche. That child had informed his parent of the threat of that harm. The parent had ignored his complaint and the violation of the child took place with impunity. Parents are supposed to protect children from harm, and the threat of harm, no matter the source from which it comes. By ignoring the hurt done to their children, parents can do irreparable harm to their child by that breach of trust.

During my child justice work across the Caribbean, I have met with a number of child offenders. One of my most memorable encounters was with a 16-year-old boy. He had a string of previous convictions. The genesis of his wrongdoing was his being sexually abused, at a very young age, by his mother’s female friend. He had complained to his mother, but she had refused to believe him. Thereafter, he had “turned bad.”

I applaud Jemilla Bailey for her courage in standing up for her child against alleged teacher brutality. She is aware of the risk of alienation and victimisation that may befall her child, but she is doing what she has to do.

I hope the Minister of Education and the head of TTUTA, parents and the majority of teachers who always do the right thing, will band together to completely remove from our schools, the scourge of violence against children, which we, euphemistically, term, corporal punishment.

Hazel Thompson-Ahye


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