Being an educator, I am aware of the value of children and young people growing up in safe and congenial environments which are fundamental requirements necessary for their physical, emotional, spiritual and psychological development. It is imperative that children are protected from abusive situations and environments which have the potential to impact negatively on their development. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines child abuse a ‘’as all forms of physical and/ or emotional ill-treatment, sexual abuse, negligent treatment or commercial or other exploitation, resulting in actual or potential harm to the child’s health, development, or dignity in the context of a relationship of responsibility, trust or power.’’ Child abuse is a global problem and it is rampant in Africa where there are weak social and child protective agencies who unable to perform their roles effectively. When this definition is taken literally, it suggests that most of the behaviours African parents classified as discipline would be considered abusive. In traditional African societies, there are certain behaviours parents exhibit towards their children which are accepted but go a long way to stifle the creativity of children and their development. The goal of this paper is to critically look at some of these actions and attempt to make a distinction between behaviours by African parents which are considered as disciplinary measures but are in fact abusive.
The use of corporal punishment features prominently in most homes and educational institutions in Africa. Majority of African adults, myself included were exposed to corporal punishment at home by parents and in school by teachers. The main proponents of corporal punishment say it is an appropriate mode of punishment which makes children behave properly. From my own personal experience and the way I was raised by my parents, corporal punishment does make children behave properly. However, I believe children behave properly out of fear of their parents beating them and not out of an understanding of set limits of behaviour by their parents. Aside the physical pain associated with corporal punishment, there is a deep psychological and emotional pain inflicted on children when they are beaten and this type of behaviour by parents can be deemed a form of child abuse based on the United Nations (UN) definition of corporal punishment. The United Nations committee on the rights of the child defines corporal punishment as ‘’any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort. It can involve, kicking, or throwing children, pinching, biting, pulling hair or boxing ears, forcing children to stay in uncomfortable positions, burning, or forced ingestion. In the view of the committee, corporal punishment is invariably degrading.’’ I believe the question we need ask ourselves is this. ‘’Is corporal punishment an acceptable way of disciplining children’’? To answer this question, there needs to be a clear distinction set between punishment and discipline. I believe punishment is used for the purposes of gaining authority or dominion and recompense whereas discipline is intended to teach, mould and guide children to become responsible adults. When children misbehave, most African parents and teachers choose corporal punishment because it is most convenient. This is a very lazy approach in the upbringing of children and it can sometimes degenerate into abuse if care is not taken. I believe corporal punishment has outlived its usefulness in the 21st century and African parents must look at for other innovative ways to discipline children. Child abuse is not discipline.
One aspect of child abuse which is often taken for granted is verbal abuse. African parents verbally abuse their children when trying to discipline them without even realizing it. As Africans, many of our parents spoke aggressively to us and I believe this was done to prepare us for the tough world out there. However, in doing that they sometimes went overboard and some mean and hurtful things to their children. Teaching at an international school and having had a chance to observe children from diverse backgrounds, I realized that African children were less creative and confident as compared to children from other races and this stems from the fact that, our parents have unconsciously trained us to be timid and less confident in ourselves. This has made most African children lose a very critical part of their upbringing with respect to their emotional development.
As Africans, we can do better. We must take adopt alternative disciplinary measures which does not expose our children to any form of mental, physical and emotional abusive. Teachers in our public schools should be equipped through workshops and seminars to sensitize them on the need to be more innovative in their approach to disciplining children without resorting to corporal punishment which has the potential to escalate into child abuse.
Story by: Kwaku Duah