Published in The Myanmar Times on 13 May 2013

UNICEF has provided alternative discipline training to 60,000 teachers, but corporal punishment remains legal.

PHOTO: Kaung Htet/The Myanmar Times

PHOTO: Kaung Htet/The Myanmar Times

A few years ago, an expat living in downtown Yangon noticed a distressed young girl on the balcony opposite his apartment building.

She had been doing calisthenics under the hot sun for hours, quite clearly against her will. The expat was so concerned that he called the ward councilor, but was shocked to find himself being reprimanded rather than the girl’s parents. The ward councilor made the man sign a document stating that he would never intrude on other peoples’ business again.

According to a teacher who spoke to The Myanmar Times on condition of anonymity and who will be referred to as “Mr Smith,” there is a widespread belief in Myanmar that “what happens in the home stays in the home.”

The author of a parenting book, Aung Thein Kyaw, said that violence towards children is common practice and an accepted part of Myanmar culture – including at schools, where teachers use caning and other painful techniques to discipline students.

In a 2009 Myanmar Times article, Aung Thein Kyaw said that a teacher from Aung Lan in Magwe punched a student so hard that it broke his tooth. Another died from injuries after being beaten by a teacher at a school in Pwin Oo Lwin.

Corporal punishment appears endemic: In a 2001 study by UNICEF and Research International Asia (Thailand), 40pc of the 10,073 children surveyed in Myanmar said that their parents beat them.

A 2002 study by UNICEF found that 17pc of respondents were unhappy at school because their teachers used corporal punishment.

However despite repeated calls from the United Nation’s Committee on the Rights of the Child (CROC) to repeal or amend a number of laws, including the implausibly titled Whipping Act (1927), the government is yet to do so. As recently as 2011, it rejected recommendations to make corporal punishment in the home unlawful. And although the government has issued directives that corporal punishment should not be used at schools, no law expressly prohibits it.

The Child Law allows for a form of “admonition by a parent or teacher… which is for the benefit of the child”, while the Penal Code states that: “nothing which is done in good faith for the benefit of a person under 12 years of age… is an offence by reason of any harm which it may cause.”

Although Myanmar is a signatory to CROC, campaigners seeking to end corporal punishment interpret local laws as eroding the rights of children under the UN Convention. For example, CROC outlines a government’s responsibility to “take all appropriate measures to ensure that school discipline is administered in a manner consistent with the child’s human dignity,” however existing laws permit the contrary.

UNICEF’s representative to Myanmar, Mr Bertrand Bainvel, told The Myanmar Times that, “corporal punishment and verbal threatening are very common and deep-rooted forms of discipline in schools in Myanmar.” Unfortunately, changing attitudes to a well-established practice in homes and schools will be difficult. Corporal punishment remains a global issue – to date, only 30 countries have made it illegal in the home. In such places, television and radio campaigns have proved highly effective in changing societal values about the perceived benefits of corporal punishment – chiefly, that it’s effective.

As Mr Smith explained, “Sometimes parents believe that giving the child a beating is being a good parent: It’s the way they themselves were taught to do well at school and to respect their elders. It’s important to introduce alternatives.”

Although parents undoubtedly want the best for their children, extensive research has found that corporal punishment produces exactly the opposite.

In April 2011, the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children stated that: “Studies show that discipline at school through either physical or emotional humiliation hinders a child’s ability to learn, undermining the very purpose of education.”

International studies have also found that corporal punishment leads to higher incidences- of truancy and drop-out rates. The Pediatrics journal states that: “Children who are spanked, hit, or pushed as a means of discipline may be at an increased risk of mental problems in adulthood — from mood and anxiety disorders to drug and alcohol abuse.”

Mr Smith said that in his experience, those who are subject to corporal punishment “inevitably start to bully others. We all have a certain capacity to hold hurt: When we’re holding too much, we have to get rid of it and so we impose it on others. The child who is being hurt will hurt others.”

Mr Smith said he believes that verbal abuse can be even more damaging than inflicting physical pain – a position echoed in the UN Convention. CROC states that “some non-physical forms of punishment are cruel and degrading and, thus, incompatible with the Convention. This includes punishment that belittles, humiliates, denigrates, scapegoats, threatens, scares, or ridicules the child.”

Mr Smith said, “The body can heal but if [children are] given negative verbal messages, their belief structure is affected. In the long-term, that can be more damaging.”

UNICEF has been advocating for the elimination of corporal punishment in schools in Myanmar since 2001. It continues to work with the Ministry of Education to promote Child Friendly Schools (CFS), which aim to provide learning environments that are “physically and mentally healthy, safe, psycho-socially supportive and protective of children,” said Mr Bainvel.

UNICEF assists schools and teachers in finding alternatives to corporal punishment, which are known as “positive discipline.” More than 60,000 teachers at 15,000 schools have undergone training programs to date.

Alternatives such as “timeout” – where a child is removed from the situation for a short period and remains quiet, or temporarily removing privileges such as watching television, is more effective than corporal punishment in deterring undesired behavior, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics: “The child may act out more in the short run, but these strategies are highly effective if used consistently.” Such alternatives are worth trying – particularly when there’s so much at stake.