Beating children in the name of discipline?

“I’ve beaten students, and I will continue to beat them. But if someone asks me, I will say no, never.” This is what Hoda Gharib, a social worker who has dealt with abused children for 14 years, is consistently told by teachers working in schools in Egypt’s slums.

Student beating is endemic across Egypt’s educational system, so much so that Education Minister Ahmed Zaki Badr said that to prevent school teachers from punishing students by beating them would leave teachers vulnerable.

The impact of such an endorsement of corporal punishment has grabbed headlines in recent years. A prime example was the case of a student in Alexandria who was fatally punched in the stomach for not doing his math homework. More recently, the media focused on a student who was severely beaten merely for arriving late to school, and another who had his arm broken by his teacher when he was unable to solve an equation. In the latter case, the teacher, Ahmed Abdel Naiem, referred to the education minister’s stance on corporal punishment as justification.

Yet while there are concerns that the ministry’s open defense of corporal punishment may be exacerbating the number of incidents leading to the serious injury of students, the roots of the problem are independent of any ministerial stance.

“One of the basic reasons for teacher-student violence, particularly in primary schools in poorer areas, is the lack of alternative punishments,” says Gharib, who works with Bashayer, an NGO set up to empower marginalized groups in Helwan. “These are schools that lack any extracurricular activities, with no music or PE classes, so even basic punishments like preventing misbehaving students from attending activities they enjoy are not a viable options.”

Another reason for teacher-student violence highlighted by Gharib has its roots in basic conceptions of what is entailed in child-rearing. “I meet teachers time and again saying that most of their students are raised at home by being beaten,” says Gharib. “These teachers then find that they have to continue that same tactic if they are to have any hope of dealing with these students. The students simply won’t respond to anything else because that is how they are brought up at home.”

How serious is home-based corporal punishment, compared to what goes on in the classroom? According to an unpublished report by the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM), 63 percent of violent incidents reported to the council’s nationwide Child Help Line–16000–relate to violence within schools. The majority were reported by parents and particularly mothers.

Violence against children within households came in second, at just over 21 percent of all call-ins reporting violence against children. Yet given the frequency at which assaulted children dial 16000 to report being beaten–six percent–this suggests that home-based violence against children is widely under-reported. In other words, why would parents call to report themselves for beating their own children?

“This makes family violence the most dangerous,” says Moshira Taher, an NCCM advisor for the Child Help Line. “Households are supposed to offer a haven for children,” she says, but the reality is that domestic violence against children includes some of the more gruesome examples of child abuse. Examples highlighted by the NCCM report range from the torturing to death of a six-year-old by her step-father–in this case the body of the victim had to be exhumed to refute the claim that she fell from the balcony–to an infant, born out of wedlock, killed by being thrown in a garbage dump by its mother.

Since its operation began five years ago, the NCCM helpline has received some 1.5 million phone calls, though just over 62,500 of them were actual reports on children in some form of danger. Of those, only 11 percent related directly to violence against children.

Sherif Abou Shady, a deputy manager at NCCM responsible for writing reports on calls made to 16000, is optimistic that the helpline can help break the silence on violence against children, and particularly on the issue of sexual abuse. He says that while sexual abuse remains under-reported, information on it is increasing thanks to the possibility of bypassing police reports through using the helpline and maintaining confidentiality.

Ultimately, Abou Shady believes the core of the problem of violence against children, in all its forms, stems from a lack of awareness and poor education. “At least a quarter of all Egyptians are illiterate,” he says, “but that doesn’t mean that the remaining three quarters are all educated or aware of the psychological damage violence can inflict on children. There is a difference between being literate and being educated.”

Would better educated parents or even teachers be sufficient to prevent child abuse? And what are the steps to achieving that? Currently, the NCCM claims that 75 percent of verified reports on teachers repeatedly hitting students to the extent of causing physical injury have resulted in the teachers involved being penalized. Yet in most such cases the penalty was only a three- or five-day deduction from the teacher’s salary.

While the NCCM and its affiliated NGOs continue to monitor such incidents, those teachers inclined to violence who are aware they have been penalized because one of their students reported them, are likely to find a means of getting back at the student.

Altogether, this raises the question of how seriously even extreme violence in the classroom is perceived by the justice system, or indeed the population in general.

“In a sense, this is a cultural problem,” says Gharib. “The idea that child-rearing and discipline are intertwined with beating children is accepted by many parents and teachers as valid and even necessary. Yet culture itself is shaped by economic, educational and other social pressures. If you can alleviate those pressures, culture itself can change for the better.”

The Child Help Line is a 24 hour service that is free of charge. It can be reached from any governorate in Egypt by dialing 16000.

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