How it can be done
It is legally and socially acceptable to assault children in their homes throughout the Caribbean.
Except it is called “discipline”. But beating children is assault by definition—the act of hitting or striking another person.
In the Caribbean—including Trinidad and Tobago—we are offenders of juveniles, and in order to continue assaulting them, definitions have been adjusted so that an adult hitting another adult is assault, but an adult hitting a child is discipline.
In a 2005-2006 study, UNICEF found the majority of the region’s children between two and 14 years old were being regularly assaulted in their homes. In T&T, 77 per cent of children in that two-to-14 age group had been violently punished in the month before the survey was conducted. The percentages for other Caribbean countries did not vary much: Belize, 70 per cent; Dominican Republic, 83 per cent; Guyana, 76 per cent; Jamaica, 89 per cent; Suriname, 86 per cent; and Barbados, 86 per cent.
Here, the practice continues with little legal censure despite the fact that abolishing it has been recommended over and over again by local, regional and international organisations. In 2002, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recommended T&T prohibit corporal punishment in all settings. As recently as 2011, the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children, a United Nations-sanctioned NGO, urged the T&T Government to prohibit corporal punishment of children in all settings—schools, penal institutions, industrial schools and home.
That recommendation referenced the 2006 recommendation by the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which suggested in 1997 and 2006 that the State render illegal and unacceptable the right of adults to beat children in the home and in institutions; the practice was prevalent in both places, said CRC.
Article 22 of T&T’s 1925 Children Act confirms “the right of any parent, teacher, or other person having the lawful control or charge of a child or young person to administer reasonable punishment to such child or young person”. What exactly is “reasonable” is left open to a variety of interpretations.
Contrary to popular understanding, T&T’s Education Act (1996) does not outlaw corporal punishment in schools. Article 18 of the Larceny Act (1919) provides for boys under 16 to be beaten. And under the Young Offenders (Male) Detention Regulations, pursuant to the Young Offenders Detention Act (1926), institutions are authorised to beat children with a rod; that punishment is ordered by the Inspector, Commissioner or Assistant Commissioner of Prisons (article 64 and the Third Schedule), up to 18 strokes, 14 strokes and nine strokes, respectively.
Under the Children Act, children convicted of offences may be sent to a certified industrial school or a certified orphanage, where corporal punishment is lawful under Article 22 of the act. Children in foster-care settings can also be legally beaten.
Children can be beaten anywhere in this country and citizens defend their right to “discipline” children with violence.
Caribbean child protection advocates know the biblical sentence “spare the rod and spoil the child” is the defence most often used by parents, guardians and caregivers. But few people know Christian leaders from across the Caribbean in 2012 released a statement supporting prohibition of corporal punishment.
Acknowledging that it has been said some scriptural texts sanction corporal punishment, the statement said it is not appropriate to take such texts out of their ancient cultural context to justify violence toward children: “We believe that the adoption of legislation to prohibit corporal punishment of children in all settings is a crucial step toward a compassionate, non-violent society...
“Through working with others and honouring children’s human right to equal protection under the law, we can put our faith into action and make significant progress towards a less violent society.”
There are those who feel outlawing corporal punishment will result in parents being sent to jail and leaving children without competent, interested guardians. Developed countries which have outlawed the beating of children—Denmark, Norway, Austria, Cyrus, Italy, etc—recognised this and set out legislation accompanied by social programmes to wean adults off the practice, to educate all young people about parenting for when they have children of their own, and stressed the objective of the legislation was not to punish adults as much as it was to protect children.
Laws were further accompanied by widespread dissemination of information about prohibition to parents, children and others.
In practice, it would be unlikely for minor assaults of children by their parents to lead to prosecution—just as is true for minor assaults of adults. Implementation of the law should be focused on the best interests of the child and, in most cases, prosecuting parents is unlikely to be in a child’s best interests. Prosecution should only be resorted to when regarded as necessary to protect the child from significant harm and as being in the best interests of the affected child.
This is a difficult if not impossible conversation to have in T&T so embedded is the habit of beating children. But more children will be abused, neglected, injured and killed unless citizens are willing to shift their thinking away from seeing violence as “discipline”.
A merry Christmas to all.
• Sheila Rampersad’s next column
will appear in a fortnight.