Child abuse in public sector schools

June 2008: Children are our most valuable resource and the best hope for the future. They need care, compassion and respect by the older members of society. In an attempt to see the extent of the problem of child abuse in public sector schools, an empirical study was conducted by this researcher, which examines the prevailing practices in public sector schools with respect to child abuse.

A qualitative research paradigm has been adopted with a major thrust on phenomenology (a study of experience or consciousness). Six primary schools have been observed in a longitudinal fashion and 30 primary school students have been interviewed. The results indicate that children in public sector schools experience different forms of violence. They are exposed to corporal punishment, cruel and humiliating forms of verbal and emotional abuse, psychological, sexual and gender-based abuse.

Another critical incident that was very frequently observed was teachers using discriminatory practices against students from poor families or marginalised groups, or those with particular personal characteristics or a disability. These prevalent practices of violence have been repeatedly reported as reasons for absenteeism, dropping out and lack of motivation for academic achievement.

Childcare is universal. In a modern school, a child is no longer thought to be a mere passive receiver to be filled like you fill a sack. It has often been said, "We learn what we live and in the degree that we accept it to live by". This involves the whole person - how he feels, how he thinks. It involves a shift in educational emphasis from subject matter to the whole child. The interests, needs and problems of the students are accepted as an important means of getting them to understand the interests, needs and problems of their society.

The ability of the student to think (and where necessary to think as a member of a group) is recognised as a way to develop self-discipline. On the other hand, when children's problems and needs are not understood and they are treated with humiliation, they might learn to react in the same manner too. Child abuse no doubt is a major social problem and can create conflicts at many levels.

November 20 is celebrated every year as the International Day of the Child as this was the day the UN General Assembly first adopted the Declaration of the Right of the Child in 1959. The convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was first formally registered in 1990 by the UN General Assembly.

Pakistan is also one of the signatories of the convention and believes in the dignity and integrity of every child. The convention, which no doubt is the most universally-accepted human rights instruments in history, establishes an international law that the state must ensure that all children - without discrimination in any form benefit from special protective measures and assistance; have access to services such as education and health care; can develop their personality, ability and talent to the fullest potential; grow up in a happy, caring environment; and are informed about and participate in achieving their rights.

However, children are not accorded with the same respect in every society. The practices of child abuse are prevalent in almost every society though they may take different forms and shapes.

Children are abused in families at times; criminals and other members around them abuse them but the school is a formal agency responsible for the grooming and nurturing of the child, therefore it cannot afford to expose the child to negative experiences.

This problem is seen in its severity in public sector schools as compared to the private schools. Since public sector schools cater to the masses, the problem takes a graver dimension. A majority of our lower-middle class and lower-class children go to public schools. Educating these children, eradicating illiteracy; preventing a high dropout rate and providing universal primary education is one of the major challenges Pakistan is facing today. We need to carefully expose these children to healthy experiences rather than discouraging ones. Three major types of child abuse frequently observed in schools include corporal punishment, verbal or emotional abuse, and neglect.

Corporal punishment
It stands first as a very frequent occurrence. Most commonly it was observed that children were exposed to different forms of physical punishment, irrespective of the fact that their classes or gender did not permit such treatment. Five-year-olds (boys as well as girls) were seen exposed to beating and caning. Moreover, slaps on the face were commonly observed with red marks on the cheeks. Children from the senior grades were seen standing on desks with their hands up; standing outside the class (in the hot sun) for an indefinite period; kneeling outside the class; and standing in the class while holding their ears. In addition to this, they were exposed to excessive spanking and slapping in front of the other children.

This treatment was most commonly seen accorded to the male students by the male teachers as an attempt to maintain discipline in class. A thin seven-year-old from class II was observed standing outside the class, holding his ears with tears rolling down his cheeks; his body numb and shaken; he was meted out this treatment for not having brought his homework copy.

Another harrowing experience was observing class-V girls (10-year-olds), standing with their hands up. Not only did they paint a nasty picture; they also raised a pointing finger at our norms and cultural values. It is widely accepted that no healthy purpose can be attained through physical punishment. Teachers should rather go for different forms of reinforcements and behavior modification techniques rather than adhering to these tactics, as they are unlikely to bring fruitful results. For many children, school is a great place to learn, socialise and build their self-esteem; for a child who is bullied, school can be a house of terror.

Verbal and emotional abuse
This stands second in frequency as compared to corporal punishment. Verbal and emotional abuse also takes a toll on a child's mental health. A child exposed to verbal abuse very often might not have the mental strength to care about his grades; he might experience anger or violent outbursts at home or school, which would ultimately build up anger and resentment within him. Victims of this kind of abuse are likely to become passive and overly cautious, have fear for free expression of ideas and feelings, might become perpetrators of psychological violence and are less likely than other children to internalise moral values. They are more inclined to engage in disorderly and aggressive conduct such as hitting their siblings, parents and schoolmates. During the inquiry, teachers were seen using abusive language very frequently, calling the children names and making fun of their distinctive features or any disability, if they suffered from one.

Recognising students' basic needs and problems, providing them with qualitative feedback, listening to all their queries, giving counseling, lending an ear to their problems, providing them with retrieval questions, reinforcement and encouragement are some of the privileges of teaching. This element is seen missing in schools today.

The graph above shows the intensity and degree of different forms of physical punishment the children were seen exposed to. The five different colours show five schools.

A highly-predictive validity is reflected. Schools have an important role in protecting children from abuse. On the contrary, many educational settings expose children to abuse and may even teach them abuse. The interview sessions with the young ones revealed that children value and respect kind and comforting teachers who explain things to them rather than drill the facts into their head.

Research suggests that children who are victims of abuse, can go on to develop anti-social and criminal behaviour in the future. Like the parents, the adults who oversee and manage staff schools, have a duty to provide a safe and nurturing environment that supports and promotes children's education and development. They also have a duty to insure that the children go on to become responsible adults who would care about gender equality, non-discrimination, tolerance and mutual respect.

Child abuse can be prevented through two-facetted goals. The first one holds that the actions or situations that are harmful for children should be controlled, while the second advocates promoting a healthy and nurturing environment. Hence, decreasing risk factors and increasing protective buffers should be the foundations of all preventive efforts.

By Dr Zaira Wahab (Dawn)
The writer is assistant professor at a private university. Email:



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