Tough boys and docile girls? Questioning the use of corporal punishment in schools

26 May, 2015

Globally, corporal punishment is widely used in schools despite international concern about the effects on children and the implications for their capacity to benefit from school. And yet it persists. Changing social policies send clear messages about practices that are not acceptable, but the eradication of corporal punishment in schools globally is proving difficult, and India is no exception.

Violence against girls is now high on the Indian political agenda, after the horrific fatal gang rape of a female student in Delhi in 2012 led to widespread demonstrations demanding an end to sexual violence against girls and women. However,  more ‘normal’ forms of violence may go unnoticed or unquestioned, and limited academic attention has focussed on the gender differences in the way punishment is meted out to boys and girls at home, school and society at large.

Social divisions based on caste, class and socio-economic status remain predominant, and violence against the powerless by those in power is common. This extends to schools where teachers ‘control’ the students through corporal punishment. For children in many parts of India, norms relating to femininity mean that girls are required to be docile and submissive, and not to be ‘caught’ being ‘naughty’. Ideas about masculinity may mean that boys are supposed to be able to accept physical punishment and to withstand pain.

This month sees the publication of  Gender Violence in Poverty Contexts – the educational challenge edited by Jenny Parkes. Chapter 5, Children’s perceptions of punishment in schools in Andhra Pradesh, India by myself and Renu Singh presents research evidence from Young Lives about the prevalence of school corporal punishment among a sample of children in Andhra Pradesh.

Our findings indicate that corporal punishment of children in schools is endemic.

India ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1992, and has copious policies that ban corporal punishment in schools. But these seem out of kilter with everyday realities. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act of 2009 guarantees school for all children between the ages of 6 and 14. Though elementary schooling has expanded, this rapid expansion has not been matched by comparable increases in the teaching workforce. There is a shortage of teachers across schools, and class sizes are very large, putting pressure on teachers to control high numbers of children.

The Government of India commissioned research that included over 3,000 children aged from 5 to 18, who were asked about physical abuse by teachers. In all age groups, 65% reported being beaten at school. Our own findings back up these figures. Our younger cohorts (aged 7-8) were significantly more likely to have witnessed and experienced corporal punishment than the 14-15 year old cohort, with over two-thirds of the younger children having been physically punished at school in the past week, compared with one-third of the older young people.  Poorer children were more likely than less poor children to be punished.

Among children aged 14-15 years of age, we found that girls and boys alike experience routine corporal punishment, with boys experiencing higher levels.  There was a less sharp distinction in use of corporal punishment between boys and girls in the younger cohort. This may be because corporal punishment is part of the socialisation of younger children, but when they are older it is no longer seen as an appropriate way to discipline young women, while ‘toughening up’ young men maybe normative. It may be seen as part of their socialisation and transition into adulthood. One 15 –year old boy complained about the unfairness of the beatings being meted out on boys, who he perceived as being punished much more than girls. The violence children and young people experience in schools may not be visibly “gendered” but it may reinforce gender differentiation throughout the ways in which it is practiced by male and female teachers. Some children, for example, spoke of being particularly afraid of the male PE teachers.  However, the reality is that young boys and girls alike are physically abused in schools, and it is being children that make them vulnerable, rather than whether they are boy or girl.

“Reasons” to be punished

Girls and boys spoke of a range of other reasons for punishment including being absent from school for work, illness, or attending family celebrations, missing classes, not doing their homework, not reading well, making mistakes, getting poor marks in exams, not wearing uniform, not having the right equipment, or not paying the teacher for extra lessons. One girl, aged 10, explained:

If we don’t study, they beat us. If we ask other children for help, they beat [us]. I went to drink water without asking sir, so he beat me that time. They said all children should come back to class by the time they count 10 after the interval. But I went home [to use the toilet]. After coming back to school, he beat me.

Linking corporal punishment to poverty

Poverty at home also clearly influenced school discipline practices. Living in poverty meant that children were sometimes not in a position to follow the rules and expectations of school. Children described being punished for not having uniform or the right equipment, or money to pay fees.

One mother mentioned that the only thing her 7-year old daughter says about school is that teachers beat her:

She studies well, she goes regularly and returns, but when there is no dress [uniform] and when we delay the fee payment then she will not go, she refuses to go. … she says she will not go and she hides behind that wall … and says that ‘sir will beat me, they will beat me’.

 As Young Lives data have shown, economic constraints and family circumstances mean that boys and girls in rural areas engage in seasonal agricultural work on family land, and miss school for days, weeks, or months at a time.  Though the boys and girls did different gender-specific work the impact was the same; when they did return to school, they faced punishment.

Though older boys rarely spoke directly about their fears of punishment, their mothers spoke of their sons’ emotions. Ranadeep’s mother explained:

Without him, we cannot run the family, we don’t get labourers and there is no other way for us. When he returns to school they shout at him and he is terrified…. His father goes there and informs them. … they scold us, they say ‘how will he get on if he is absent for such a long time?’… we try to pacify them by telling them about our problems at home.

What can be done?

In global policy debates, much emphasis has been placed on the role of education as the solution not only to reducing cycles of poverty in developing countries, but also to addressing gender violence.

However, the evidence presented here suggests that we must question this, at least in the Indian context. All children, regardless of gender, experience high levels of physical violence in schools. But it is teenage boys who experience the most.

But blaming specific groups (teachers, and/or parents) will not enable progress to be made, and risks alienating teachers already under pressure because of overcrowded classrooms, poor infrastructure, and poverty situations.

Approaches need to develop not only from the top down, but from communities, families and teachers to find ways of working together to change practices.

Violence as an integral part of schooling may have consequences for boys’ and girls’ development that go beyond the here-and-now of childhood to social and economic consequences in adulthood.  In India, this needs to be understood in the context of high expectations that parents and children have of schools. Some children dislike school for many reasons, but if they discontinue school because of their experience of corporal punishment, and if they learn that corporal punishment is the solution to behaviour that is out of line, then formal schooling may inadvertently be reinforcing both cycles of poverty and the use of violence, and particularly gender violence.

A longer version of this post is at the Young Lives Blog and on the Guardian Development Professionals Network

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About the author(s)
Virginia Morrow
Senior Research Officer, Young Lives, and Associate Professor

© Young Lives / Sarika Gulati