South Africa: 'Until We Stop Hitting Children, We'll Not Stop Men From Hitting Women'

(file photo).
9 October 2019

Cape Town — South Africa has become the 57th country to prohibit the corporal punishment of children. This comes after the Constitutional Court's ruling that the common law defence of 'reasonable and moderate chastisement' is unconstitutional.'s Jerry Chifamba spoke with Carol Bower, Director at Quaker Peace Centre who shared her thoughts on the decision and its impact.

What does the ruling mean to you?

I've worked for this for nearly 20 years. So for me it's a combination of a great deal of very hard work for a very long period of time. Of course there's a lot of reaction to it and we expected that. There are so many reasons why this is necessary and we're sure that if we present the information to people in an accessible way, they will eventually understand why we think it's a bad idea to hit children.

"Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them." How can we stop churches from preaching what they believe is God's will, considering The Freedom of Religion South Africa, a pressure group argues that the ruling infringes on their constitutional right to the free exercise of religion.

It's interesting how people who say those kinds of things cherry pick their way through the Bible. It's interesting what they choose is usually around the status of women, something around the status of children and something around homosexuality. Those are the issues they focus on. It's dishonest, it's ridiculous. If they are going to say you must do everything the Bible says, then why aren't they stoning their neighbours? And to say the government has no right to interfere in the home is simply not true. The state is obliged, they have a duty to protect everybody against violence that's why we have a constitution.  Anyway why are we taking advice from someone who wrote in the 1100s before Christ? If you believe in these things, Christ himself never said even a bad word to children, every encounter that was recorded was calm, peaceful and loving. But again, if the State doesn't have a right to interfere in the home, then why do we have legislation against domestic violence? because you can't do what the hell you like in your own home. You can do what you want in your home as long as you don't hurt anybody else, that's the difference.

Threats to hit and hitting was a constant form of discipline in our house, the one most frequently used. How can one change the minds of parents who use it as discipline?

There's a big deference between discipline and punishment. Discipline and punishment both come from the Latin word. The Latin word that punishment is based on is premiers and it means to hurt. The Latin word that discipline is derived from is disciplina and it means to guide and to teach.

How is physically disciplining children connected to mental health problems and/or suicide?

There are lot of problems. The research is very clear. In fact in a research with the University of Texas, wrote a paper a couple of years ago called We Know Enough Now to Stop Hitting our Children. What we know is that in South Africa we are an incredibly violent country and we've just seen an apparent spike in the rates of rape and femicide. During women's month in September the Nene case was the most well-known but there were several others.

Please explain the link between increased spanking and increased anxiety.

We know from research done in South Africa at the children's institute at the UCT that there is a direct link between violence including physically disciplining children and perpetrating gender based violence and femicide. So much so that we can say that until we stop hitting children, we will not stop men from hitting women. That's the cold reality of it. So we need to take it serious that violence breeds violence. When you hit a child you teach that child completely the wrong lessons. You teach them that bigger, stronger, more powerful people can hurt those who are smaller or weaker. We mustn't confuse between discipline and punishment. Children don't need punishment, they need to be guided and  helped to understand, they need to be involved in decision making, they need to play an active role in what's going on. They need to  be loved and cared for. It's not rocket science.

From what we've seen in responses on Twitter and Facebook, some people consider physical discipline as part of their culture, especially in black communities. How do we move towards positive discipline?

From all the records that we can find, physical discipline of children was not in African culture before slavery. The missionaries, the colonisers and the slave traders are what brought corporal punishment to Africa. Which doesn't mean African people were necessarily nice to each other - I'm not saying there were no wars. I'm just saying people in Africa generally did not think it was okay to hit their children as a form of discipline. And there are many Xhosa, Zulu and other proverbs that say things like, you can not raise a child with a stick. It's completely contrary to the culture of Ubuntu -  it's not cultural at all, it was forced on us and used by the Apartheid govt to keep black people in their place - so to say.

Does physically disciplining children have any long-term mental health effects?

Well it has long-term emotional consequences, behavioral consequences. Boys who are physically punished are much more likely to perpetrate domestic violence against their partners, they are much more likely to beat their children. On the other hand, women that were physically punished are much more likely to beat their children, also much more likely to seek out men who will abuse them. Physical punishment in childhood is directly related to increased aggression in adulthood, to increased depression in adulthood and to increased suicidal ideationally -  as in the idea of committing suicide in adulthood. To difficulty in forming close personal relationships, to lots of other problems including  psycho-symmetric problems - difficulty for people to hold on decent jobs, the list goes on. But the most critical one is lessons we teach children when we hit them and that is a societal issue that we need to take seriously.

We know from research from West Africa that children who were in schools where corporal punishment was allowed and children in schools where it wasn't allowed. This is a massive study covering several countries in West Africa. The  difference between the 2 sets of students was that where there was no corporal punishment on average the IQs of those students were 5 points higher than in children where corporal punishment was used. When you're fearful, your adrenaline spikes Every adrenaline spike kills brain cells in a developing brain. Children can't learn when they are frightened. So it impacts on intelligence.

Can you think of examples of positive discipline for those who don't know?

If you have a crawling baby that keeps sticking fingers into the plug, you don't have to hit the baby but you cover the plugs. Otherwise you teach the child that it's wrong to be curious and wrong to ask question and if you step out of line you'll get bashed.

A two-year-old in a supermarket throwing a tantrum. Of course it's embarrassing but if you hit the child you'll only make it worse and you'll do so much damage to the relationship between yourself and that child. Hold the child, say you can't do this, it's not allowed. You can be upset, you can cry but you can't break things and you can't hurt people. I will hold you until you calm down. That's positive discipline.

Positive discipline teaches children to think for themselves, to be self disciplined, to be compassionate and understanding of other people. To not be violent in their responses to disagreement with other people. To try and find ways to resolve issues that do not involve violence. In South Africa there's a default reaction to anything we don't like is to lash out. We kill children in South Africa at twice the rate that they do anywhere else in the world. Our child homicide rate is double the global average. Out murder rate is three times the global average. This is an incredibly violent country and if we don't stop violence in childhood, we're not going to stop violence in society. it's really as simple as that.

What happens next?

There are a few things that need to happen. There's a huge mistake in believing that parents are going to be sent to jail for every little smack. That's not going to happen and it's simply not true. We've achieved prohibition which is fantastic and I've worked for this for nearly 20 years and I'm really happy but I'm well aware that the real work starts now. real work of helping parents to understand why it's important that they discipline their children and not punish them. And that we can start to think of a society in South Africa where we don't have this extreme, obscene levels of violence.

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