From left: Winner National Poetry Competition 2018 Haritha Pramodya, Sarvodaya President Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne, Faculty of Colombo Senior Lecturer in Psychiatry Dr. Chathuri Suraweera, LEADS Manager advocacy Nayomi Silva, University of Colombo Emeritus Professor of Law and Former Vice Chancellor Prof. Savithri Gunasekara, Shanthi Maargam Executive Director Kamani Jinadasa, Lalith Senanayake, Stop Child Cruelty Chairperson Dr. Tush Wickramanayake, Winner National Poetry Competition 2018 Misha Miskin, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and Member UGC Prof. Hemantha Senanayake and Hindu Women’s Society President Sivanandani Duraiswamy.

By Shanika Sriyananda

Can domestic violence and depression among teachers also be causes for Corporal Punishment (CP) at homes and in schools? Or do the existing laws to protect or discipline children which have contradictory versions, let perpetrators go scot-free?

These were among the main queries that were discussed at the recently-held meeting to review the progress of the ‘End Corporal Punishment 2020’ campaign.

Emphasising on the link between domestic violence and CP, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Hemantha Senanayake said that children coming from families where fathers assault mothers would generalise ‘hitting’ as normal behaviour to correct wrongdoers.

“They mostly follow the father’s authoritarian form of behaviour. When they enter into schools, they think teachers or principals can hit them to correct their behaviour. Children think that teachers have power and authority to hit them,” he said.

According to Prof. Senanayake, no parent or a teacher hits a child with love to correct the child but it is due to their uncontrollable anger which is taken out on the child.

“It is very unfortunate to hear that school prefects hit younger students and they generalise it by saying that they hit students mainly because they were hit by their seniors and they were hurt and now it is their turn,” he said.

Prof. Senanayake, who is also a member of the University Grants Commission (UGC), claimed that bullying was on the rise and that children who were subjected to harassment would engage in destructive and violent behaviour.

“Our key objective is to change the law related to child cruelty,” he stressed.

‘Stop Child Cruelty’ campaign Chairperson Dr. Tush Wickramanayaka said that the message of ending CP by 2020 had attracted much attention and support of many institutions, such as UGC, LEADS, Sarvodaya, Hindu Women’s Society, Presidential Task Force on Child Protection and the Family Planning Association.

Explaining the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC)’s definition on CP, which says ‘any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light,’ she said that no one could measure CP given to a child as little or severe.

“In addition to physical harm, a child who has been subjected to CP undergoes significant mental agony,” she said. 

Five Pentagon Proposals

 The Pentagon Proposals drafted by the campaign has five stakeholders of Government – the President, Minister of Education, Minister of Children’s Affairs, Minister of Law and Order and Minister of Justice, who are there to safeguard the children of Sri Lanka.

The proposed implementations of the first phase are to ensure a total ban on CP is institutionalised and implemented, implementing the National Child Protection Policy, regulating international schools, circulating all relevant circulars to all schools and making principals and teachers aware about them, establishing child protection officers in every school and making all parents aware of those appointments through specially-designed materials which can be distributed through schools, targeting students admitted to Grade 1 in 2020.

“In this journey, the two highways – one to bring amendments to existing laws and the other to change the attitudes and behaviour of children, parents and teachers – need to be parallel.

She said that beliefs and attitudes of parents, teachers and the law enforcement authorities, especially the Police, who have their own opinions on CP, needed to be changed by having awareness programs on positive reinforcements to discipline children.

Wickramanayaka stated that they had started a dialogue with the Ministry of Education to prepare a national formula to promote positive punishments to maintain discipline in schools. 

Enforcing 2016 Circular

 Emphasising on the need to enforce the 2016 Circular issued by the Ministry of Education which clearly states not to practice CP in schools but to promote positive methods to maintain behaviour among students, Dr. Wickramanayaka said that the campaign would put pressure on the Government to regularise international schools.

“We have already started a dialogue with the top officials to make this circular effective in international schools. Why do we treat our children in two different ways?” she asked.

Dr. Wickramanayaka said that appointing child rights officers who are responsible for children was another key requirement to ensure the safety of children.

“They are not enforcement officers but those who know how to handle children, their safety and rights and who will be closely working with the school principals, deputy principals and teachers. We will train them,” she said, adding that children who enter Grade 1 in 2020 will be given a leaflet to make them aware that ‘no one can hit them at school’.

Humiliated and badly beaten

 While most of parents tolerate it when their children are given CP thinking that they would be further harassed and humiliated by teachers and principals if they were to take up the issue, Lalith Senanayake couldn’t keep mum when his 13-year-old son was badly beaten up by two teachers at school.

He is suffering from post-traumatic stress and undergoing psychological treatment.

“My son was punished, humiliated and beaten by teachers as I couldn’t take part in the cleaning program at the school. It was a nightmare,” he said, recalling the series of shocking ‘treatment’ given to his son by two teachers and the school principal for no fault of his own.

“I lodged a complaint with the Police and it is very sad that Police officers bring their own opinion on CP when we make complaints. They justify hitting a child as a means to discipline children. My son became mentally disturbed, lost appetite and concentration on studies, started screaming and waking up in the middle of the night, having nightmares. He cried saying he couldn’t go back to school,” he recalled.

After a few weeks, when his son was taken back to school, the principal, who thought that Senanayake was trying to protest against teachers, had said that he would again beat the child if he returned to school.

Inquires dragging on

Senanayake had complained to the Ministry of Education, which is still carrying out an investigation into the incident which happened in September 2018, and made another complaint to the Police, which is yet to initiate an inquiry in this regard, and then to the Human Rights Commission, which recorded statements from the teachers.

Senanayake said that changing perspectives and attitudes of parents, teachers and law enforcement officers were vital to protect children from being subjected to CP.

“Teachers who are popular for punishing children are the most powerful group in a school and they even control the principals. When a child is beaten, he is mentally affected, more than the physical harm, and the impact is immeasurable,” he said, adding that he came forward to raise his voice against CP as he did not want any other child to suffer mentally like his son.

Citing statistics from some studies, Shanthi Margam Executive Director Kamani Jinadasa revealed that over 41% of children had undergone physical harassment and out of this over 75% had been subjected to CP and nearly 90% had faced mental aggression.

She said that research had shown that children, especially boys, who were subjected to physical harassment and abuse were involved in domestic violence later.

“No one will have violent behaviour automatically and there are several reasons like getting harassed or abused, especially at homes and in schools, that would transfer the violent experience back to society when they grow up,” she explained.

Jinadasa said that it was shocking to see that over 97% of rape cases do not come before the legal process as the victims tend to suffer silently.

 Zero tolerance 

 She also said that there was an urgent need to promote a zero violence culture and behavioural control through positive punishments by parents and teachers.

Emeritus Professor of Law and former Vice Chancellor of the University of Colombo Savithri Gunasekara said that in all religions, including Buddhism in the Sigalovada Sutta, had stated how to bring up a child properly using sweet speech, love and kindness.

“Ancient Sri Lankan society had its own values. Robert Knox in his book about Sri Lanka had said that ‘their anger does not last long. Seldom do they beat even a slave’. But that very forgiving society has changed today. What we have seen in Sri Lanka is the manifestation of violence over time and we have not addressed it, which is one of the key areas to prevent violence at school, homes, etc.,” she said.

Prof. Gunasekara said that people tend to dismiss the law when they see weaknesses in implementation.

“When we see weaknesses and inadequacies in implementation, we think ‘what is the use of the law?’ But the point is that law has a role in society. It is a failure of the law in the society, the State and the family to coordinate responses that has led to the legitimisation of violence,” she explained.

Elaborating more on the country’s legal process related to children and CP, she said that people should not lose faith in the legal system, which is essential in a country and upholds morals.

“The concept of beating the wrongdoers came through British Colonial Law and later it was transferred to the Sri Lankan legal system. But in 1994 there were serious concerns about changing this concept and since 2005 whipping was banned in Sri Lanka,” she noted in her speech on ‘Accountability in Child Protection’.

Prof. Gunasekara said that although Dr. Tara de Mel, when she was the Secretary to the Ministry of Education, had issued a circular to ban hitting in schools, it never became law.

Reforms to Penal Code 

 “There is a need to reform the Penal Code to say CP is banned and is a crime. We also need to have one voice against CP and if these are not implemented and have awareness campaigns against beating children at schools and homes, CP will exist even in the next three decades,” she stated.

Speaking on the theme ‘Change the Law; it is Now or Never,’ LEADS Manager Advocacy Nayomi Silva said that out of 9,512 complaints reported to the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) from 2013 to 2018, over 2,413 complaints were incidents of cruelty against children.

According to Silva, there is no information whether all of 9,512 complaints have been investigated and court cases filed against the perpetrators.

Citing the contradictory sections in the Penal Code and the other laws related to children on CP, she said that the contradictory nature of the existing legal system had created some loopholes.

“Having contradictory laws is more dangerous than having no laws. This situation makes parents helpless when they seek justice. Different organisations and campaigns have tried to bring changes, especially to introduce the juvenile justice administration system to the existing laws for over 40 years, but they are yet to be implemented,” she said, stressing on the need for political pressure to change laws related to children.

“As parents, you have a great responsibility and power to pressurise the respective politicians to include child protection in their manifestos and also to vote for those who have concerns about children,” she said.

Increase the number of teachers 

 According to Faculty of Colombo Senior Lecturer in Psychiatry Dr. Chathuri Suraweera, cruelty against children is not given much attention, unlike women’s rights and animal rights.

“Controlling a class with 40-50 students is not easy and teachers can’t give attention to each and every student. I think there is a need to increase the number of teachers to have two teachers in a class. Although it is not possible due to the dearth of teachers in the country, when an additional teacher is in a class, they can identify the impulsive behaviour and learning difficulties among children to give them more attention,” she said.

She said that CP was mostly given to aggressive children in the class and it was easy to discipline them if they were initially identified for ADHD or some learning difficulties.

According to Suraweera, positive parenting and having a home environment conducive for children can prevent children from getting harassed in schools.

“When the homes are peaceful places for children, they will not behave aggressively in school,” she said, explaining that children should not be pressurised into being goal-oriented and needed time to enjoy recreational activities, music and reading.

She said parents also needed to be consistent in their decision making while giving them love and sparing time to talk to them. “If the parents and teachers feel that they are stressed and depressed, they need to seek psychological treatment as it will affect the children,” she stressed.

Speaking on ‘The Child as a Rights Holder, a New Era,’ Sarvodaya Shamadana Movement President Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne said that it was very difficult to change CP as it had been generalised not only in schools but also in society.

“Child cruelty is normalised in social media in a big way. Alumni associations, WhatsApp and Facebook groups share those stories,” he said, emphasising on the importance of non-violent communication, which can be used in the family, school and society.

Dr. Ariyaratne claimed that Sri Lanka had failed to create a safer environment for children.

The ECP 2020 campaign is organised by Stop Cruelty together with the Presidential Secretariat and the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute and is supported by leading personalities as patrons and an alliance of professionals.