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Children's views and experiences of corporal punishment

The following description of research into the experiences of corporal punishment by children in Swaziland is taken from the International Save the Children Alliance's global submission to the UN Study on Violence, Ending Physical and Humiliating Punishment of Children - Making it Happen, available at:

What was done
In 2005, a survey of Swazi boys and girls aged 6 - 18 years explored children's experiences, views and feelings in relation to corporal punishment and other forms of humiliating and degrading punishment. The survey had a quantitative component, which included 2,366 children from all of Swaziland's four regions, and a qualitative component, which included 384 children from the same four regions. The survey was conducted by the consultancy Clacherty and Associates from South Africa in close collaboration with Save the Children Swaziland. The sample for the study was drawn across four socio-economic levels (income bands), distributed across all regions of Swaziland - namely, Manzini, Shiselweni, Lubombo, and Hhohho....

Children participating in the survey were located through schools. The schools were selected randomly within the applied income bands and regions as well as according to the age requirements. Child participants in the quantitative component as well as in the focus groups in the qualitative component were drawn across the age groups (6 - 8 years, 9 - 12 years, 13 - 18 years) from relevant grades across the schools, maintaining a gender balance throughout. Within these constraints, the selection of individual children was random. It was considered important to differentiate the three age groups as children's experience of both the forms and severity of punishment, their views of its legitimacy, their responses to it, and their suggested alternatives could vary considerably between younger and older children. Gender differentiation was regarded as important for the same reasons.

The selection of the above-mentioned variables was done as the socio-economic factor is often used in different theories and relates the income band to the frequency of corporal punishment. The age factor was taken into account as the pattern of age differences in corporal punishment has not previously been researched in the southern Africa region. This was also the case with the gender factor.
The children selected in the quantitative component of the survey were asked if they had been hit with a hand and/or beaten by an object and/or if they had been subjected to humiliating and degrading punishment within the last two weeks either at home or in school. These answers to the questions were obtained in clear yes/no form. The children also had to indicate whether they accepted or not accepted the above-mentioned treatment. In addition the children also had to state their preference of three alternative forms of punishment. These were hitting, talking, and other (such as to stay in one's room).

In the qualitative data gathering process focus group activities and discussions appropriate to the three age groups and in the home language of the participants were run for approximately 60 minutes in each case. All discussion was tape recorded, translated into English where necessary, and transcribed. These transcriptions, together with children's drawings and researcher session notes and observations, constituted the data for qualitative analysis.

Child punishment was explored as experienced in the context of the home, and then separately, as it was experienced in the context of school. In both contexts, typical forms of corporal punishment and humiliating or degrading punishment that the children had experienced were explored. For both forms of punishment children were asked:

  • Why did you get punished?
  • Do you think it was acceptable (ok) to punish you for this?
  • How did you feel at the time?
  • Did it make you do something?
  • Do you think they could have punished you in a different way?
  • If yes, what different way of punishing would have been better?

Note that children were asked to talk about the 'last time' they were punished at home or school. So most incidents reported on here happened in the recent past. Frequency of punishment was not explored. Children's knowledge of the legality of corporal punishment in school was not explored.

.... All activities and discussions were held in the children's home language and were adapted in terms of pace, language level, and the re-phrasing of questions and examples according to the relevant age group. Opening and closing activities were designed to set children at ease, to clarify purposes, and to encourage safe, affirming and non-threatening participation. In particular, and in terms of ethical principles, matters of choice (i.e. the choice to respond or not) and of confidentiality were explicitly clarified at the opening of each focus group. In addition the following strategies were also applied. At no point were children asked to identify who punished them. Through the process of drawing followed by discussion, speaking in the third person about incidents of punishment was actively encouraged to create emotional distance and increase confidentiality. At no point were the responses of children who showed signs of distress forced or probed. Children were informed at the beginning of the research interaction that in cases of sexual abuse the researcher would need to tell someone, with the child's involvement (The law requires educators and researchers to report sexual abuse that is disclosed.].... Other than in cases of sexual abuse, children were assured that researchers would keep everything they said confidential....

The research was funded by Save the Children Sweden.

What was found
Eighteen percent of children reported being subjected to corporal punishment by being hit with the hand in the home during a period of two weeks, and 28% of children experienced corporal punishment in the form of being beaten with objects such as sticks, belts, sjamboks and whips during the same period.

"My mother beat me with a belt on my back. I came home late from playing with my friends." Boy, 9 - 12-year-old age group

"She locked me into her room and hit me with a stick on my legs. She did not like it that I was playing with water." Girl, 9 - 12-year-old age group

Boys aged 6 - 12 years described being beaten for breaking things, stealing, not looking after livestock properly, going out to play instead of working, or playing out too late. Young children, mainly girls, were punished for issues related to household chores.

"At home I did not want to look after cattle. I was made to fetch water and they beat me." Boy, 9 - 12-year-old age group

On many occasions corporal punishment was linked to additional punishment such as chores, hard physical labour or withholding food.

"I came home from playing soccer later than the expected time in the evening. I was beaten with a stick and denied food." Boy, 13 - 18-year-old age group

"I had not washed the dishes. My mother beat me, told me to leave home and ordered me to go and plough the fields." Boy, 9 - 12-year-old age group

A number of children reported being beaten by parents or relatives while the adults were under the influence of alcohol.

"I had come home late by being held up with my friends. My aunt was totally intoxicated. When I was asked why I came late at night, I tried to explain but my explanation fell on deaf ears. I was cruelly flogged. I was beaten with a knobkerrie." Boy, 13 - 18-year-old age group.

Twenty percent of children reported being hit with a hand and 59% of children reported being beaten with an object at school during the two-week period. In schools, children are most often hit with the hand, sticks, canes, sjamboks and blackboard dusters.

"I was not able to count and I was beaten. I was beaten on my hand five times." Boy, 6 - 8-year-old age group

"Teacher beat me with a big stick on my bums. She said I had not handed in my work, yet I had done so and she did not mark it." Girl, 9 - 12-year-old age group

Children reported being subjected to corporal punishment at school due to making a noise or talking in class, coming late to school, not completing work, not doing work correctly, failing tests, wearing incorrect uniform items, dropping litter, losing books or leaving them at home, etc.

In addition to more traditional forms of corporal punishment, Swazi children also experienced punishment involving physical labour. Another form of punishment was designed to cause discomfort or pain, for example, jumping up and down like a rabbit or sit on an invisible chair for long periods of time. Most of these kinds of punishment were also experienced as humiliating, which appear to have been the intention.

"The teacher made me sit on the invisible chair for one hour. I was making a noise in class." Girl, 6 - 8-year-old age group

"I came to school late for the third time. My teacher made me dig a hole outside. Anyone who did anything wrong that week was made to dig the hole." Boy, 9 - 12-year-old age group

Thirty-five percent of children reported being exposed to humiliating punishment at home, while 25% experienced this form of punishment at school. Examples of humiliating punishment related to verbal abuse, name-calling and isolation from the home or family. Corporal punishment administered in front of others was also perceived as humiliating.

"One day we were learning a new topic and I never understood it. My teacher started shouting at me; she started shouting that I'm becoming lazy and stupid because I had gotten a lot of things wrong in my work." Boy, 6 - 8-year-old age group

"My teacher threw a duster at me and called me a useless piece of cloth. I raised my hand and gave a wrong answer. I cried as others laughed at me." Girl, 13 - 18-year-old age group

Humiliating punishment is quite often meted out by foster parents, step-parents, uncles and aunts. Children from low-income environments generally experience corporal punishment and other forms of humiliating and degrading punishment to a greater extent than children from high-income environments. In addition, qualitative data indicates that punishments tend to be particularly severe in the low-income environments.

"It was alleged that I had influenced one boy to smoke and to drink alcohol so I was given 12 strokes on the buttocks. I was strangled first. Three teachers punished me, each giving me four strokes." Boy, 13 - 18-year-old age group

It is important to stress that although this study has looked at children from different income groups in Swaziland, there are factors other than income which influence the use of corporal punishment and other forms of humiliating and degrading punishment on children, for example, relative levels of stress and, possibly, associated relationship problems.

In general, corporal punishment is also used more frequently on younger children than on older children. Older children tend to experience humiliating and degrading punishment to a greater extent than younger children.

The study found no statistically significant difference between the levels of corporal and humiliating punishment received by boys and girls, with the exception of older boys who experience humiliating and degrading punishment at school more often than girls. Qualitative data indicates that girls are particularly prone to verbal abuse, as parents attempt to control the perceived sexual activities of teenage girls.

"My uncle shouted at me that I was late and although I explained to him that I had come from netball practice and gym he threw a stone at me. I was able to dodge the stone. He also wanted me to come along with him to school to prove that I had come from the practice. He spoke bad words, saying it is possible that I was with boys at school and I am lying was about being at practice. " Girl, 13 - 18-year-old age group

If children themselves could choose, they would prefer to be disciplined in a nonviolent and non-humiliating manner. On average, 77% of the children questioned in the survey found corporal punishment unacceptable in both the home and at school. The sentiment was the same towards humiliating punishment, which approximately 81% of the children found unacceptable. The overwhelming majority of children would like parents and teachers to talk to them and explain what they did wrong instead of using corporal punishment and other forms of humiliating and degrading punishment. According to the study, 82% of the children would like adults to talk to them, 10% of the children would prefer non-violent disciplinary measures in the form of staying in one's room, writing punishment, or detention. This indicates that the majority of children (92%) wish to be treated with respect, to be listened to by adults, and to be given a better understanding of what they have done wrong.

"I was beaten by my mom using a coat hanger. She beat me all over the body. I came home late and did not cook that day. She should tell me nicely what I'm supposed to do." Girl, 13 - 18-year-old age group

"My aunt beat me. I arrived late from fetching water. I felt bad because it was painful where she had beaten me. It would have been better if she made me wash the dishes." Girl, 9 - 12-year-old age group

Children reported a range of feelings and behavioural responses to corporal punishment and other forms of humiliating and degrading punishment. In the older age groups, a number of children expressed very strong emotional responses to punishment experienced at home, such as outrage, embarrassment, isolation, being hated, withdrawal, shock, injustice, worthlessness, guilt and humiliation. However, across all age groups the primary feelings were sadness, regret, remorse or guilt. Many children in the lower-income groups said anger was the primary feeling, as well as offence, unfairness and a desire to get away. At school, anger and resentment about corporal punishment were more commonly reported across all age groups, but particularly by the older children. Apart from anger, younger children also expressed sadness and 'feeling bad', often coupled with a desire to run away from school.

"I came late to school and because I did not have the right socks my teacher told me to touch the wall and he gave me six strokes on the buttocks; when he realised that I did not have the proper type of socks, he gave me another six. I felt angry." Boy, 13 - 18-year-old age group

"They were hitting me and shouting at me. They beat me many times. I had spilt methylated spirit. I felt pain where they hit me. I felt like running away." Boy, 6 - 8-year-old age group

Both at home and at school, the responses of the majority of children reflected high levels of powerlessness in the face of adult authority, which was felt to be absolute and unchallengeable. In many cases, particularly at school, children's anger gave rise to aggressive fantasies, and wishes for revenge, but none reported taking any action.

"I had not washed my plate when I finished eating. My mother strangled me and I started crying. I did nothing. I felt like hitting her with a clenched fist." Boy, 13 - 18-year-old age group

"The teacher came to me and he wanted to slap me and he took his rope and hit me with the rope. I felt like taking something and breaking him. I was thinking of killing him." Boy, 9 - 12-year-old age group

Children's Experiences of Corporal Punishment in Swaziland (Pretoria: Save the Children Sweden), by G. Clacherty, D. Donald and A. Clacherty (2005) is available as a Word document.
Save the Children's report Ending corporal punishment of children in Swaziland is available as a PDF.

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