In 2016, in a classroom in the hilly city of Mwanza, in northwestern Tanzania, a group of about 20 girls took turns demonstrating to me how their teachers hit them using canes. The secondary school students recounted daily abuse, indicating which parts of their bodies their teachers struck for many reasons such as arriving a few minutes late, making noise or speaking to a classmate, or not answering a question correctly. Or simply for no apparent reason.
I noticed some girls had fresh bruises on their calves or other parts of their legs. One girl told me her teacher repeatedly hit her so hard in the buttocks that the cloth she was using to contain period blood fell to the floor. Her peers laughed at her. She felt vulnerable and humiliated.
In August, Tanzania’s government banned teachers in the lower grades of primary school from entering classrooms with canes.
This is an important decision to change the government’s mentality that children learn best when corporal punishment is permitted in classrooms. Regulations that permit the use of corporal punishment in schools reinforce the status quo, even though caning breaches Tanzania’s international obligation to end all forms of corporal punishment against children.
But, given the widespread and entrenched violence against students in Tanzania’s schools, the government’s focus only on canes and on some primary school grades simply doesn’t go far enough.
Children told us teachers also hit or punch them. Sometimes, teachers force them to get into the “frog pose”—that is, bending down, tucking their head, neck and arms down and then make them jump or hold that position for a long time. They also subject students to humiliating comments, most often in front of their classmates. In a few cases, girls reported that what first started as physical punishment in the first year of secondary school, turned into sexual abuse later.
The pattern of abuse we documented in secondary schools across the country was pervasive, degrading and humiliating.
The government should also turn its attention to why teachers treat students this way when the teachers in fact have an ethical obligation to care for and protect their students.
In that same secondary school where girls told us about punishment by their teachers, a group of teachers admitted that it’s a routine part of their days - they must do it, they said, because that’s how they can keep their students in check. Most said they resorted to violence because it’s the easiest way to deal with a very large number of children in the classrooms. A teacher with long tenure boldly said that he “inflicts pain” so that children comply with his directions in the classroom. It’s what teachers have done for a long time.
Only one teacher from a group of eight or nine was against violence in his classroom. He was aware that resorting to violence only induces anxiety and fear in his students, interrupting their learning. In his opinion, teachers should find positive ways to encourage children to enjoy learning, understanding why students sometimes don’t comply with teacher’s instructions.
Evidence from multiple countries confirms his views - corporal punishment and other forms of violence in the classroom stifles learning, and has a detrimental impact on brain development. There are simply no benefits to caning or hitting students.
Teachers talked about their frustration with the poor state of their schools, and with the lack of proper teaching resources, adequate spaces to teach, or support for teachers. They also felt they needed formal training on different ways to manage large classrooms, and alternatives to “discipline” to avoid using physical or psychological violence. Our research found this isn’t part of teachers’ formal training. The information they get in this subject remains piecemeal and dependent on funding from development partners.
Although these factors don’t justify teachers’ violent treatment of students, they highlight gaps in policy and training requiring the government’s urgent attention.
Tanzania should call a halt to corporal punishment in all of its schools. The government should adopt a total ban on corporal punishment and invest in quality teachers’ training, adequate monitoring, and greater support and resources for teachers to ensure that they un-learn these damaging practices, and guarantee children’s safety in their classrooms.
Elin Martinez is senior researcher on children’s rights at Human Rights Watch.