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Difference between punishment and abuse

The mother who burned the hand of her eight-year-old daughter on a tawah deserves to be punished, but punishment alone cannot be the sole response for 29-year-old Kamla Ramcharan. Ramcharan, a single mother of four, had reportedly placed the child's hand on the hot iron skillet in order to punish her for stealing money from a classmate at her primary school. When the police went to Ramcharan's home five days after, she told them, "I not sorry for what I do, I sure she not going to steal again."

Even if the child did steal, this statement clearly shows that it is Ms Ramcharan's moral compass which is skewed. To believe that torture is a fit punishment for theft betrays a mind which lacks even an intuitive grasp of proportionality or responsibility as the foundations of just action. When children commit crimes in civilised societies (or in societies attempting to be civilised), they are not tortured or even sent to jail. This is because children are not emotionally mature enough to be fully responsible for their actions.

It is worth noting, however, that Ramcharan's view of cruelty as morally justified fits seamlessly with the generally violent ethos which plagues Trinidad and Tobago. Many of the same people who would express shock and revulsion at Ramcharan's actions, for instance, would in the next breath argue that licks is necessary in order to raise a well-disciplined and law-abiding child. Their standard argument is that there is a clear distinction between punishment and abuse. Unfortunately, that is not always true, since many children in recent times were killed because of punishment for some minor transgression inflicted by adults who didn't know when to stop, in part because the society's norms encourage the expression of rage rather than self-control.

By the same token, however, punishment alone cannot change this culture. The Magistrates' Court may thus not be the appropriate institution to deal with such issues — instead, a Children's Court might do a more effective job. Nor is it a given that jail-time, instead of probation, was the best option in this case. What good would it serve for Ms Ramcharan, or her children, to spend three years in prison and come back out with the same attitude? Would she have learned anything? Would her children be better off or would they be even more at risk of repeating the cycle of their mother, who had her first child when she herself was just 14 years old?

At the very least, Ms Ramcharan must receive counselling which would teach her parenting skills, so when she has served her jail term she can resume her motherly responsibility on a better footing and, hopefully, with continued monitoring.

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