LAW: HARD LESSONS

Published April 11, 2021
A large number of students drop out of schools due to physical abuse
A large number of students drop out of schools due to physical abuse

Hands stretched forward, ready to receive a blow on the knuckles from the teacher’s ruler or stick. Being sent to the principal’s office for caning. Forced to stand in the corner of the classroom or outside its door. Made to sit on a dustbin during class, resulting in humiliation. The images that come to mind when we mention corporal punishment at schools, vary. But for many schoolchildren in Pakistan, punishments can be much more severe — even deadly.

In January 2018, a nine-year-old boy, Mohammad Hussain, was beaten to death by his madrassah teacher, Najmuddin, in Eidu Goth of Bin Qasim Town in Karachi, because the boy had escaped from the seminary.

In December 2018, a cleric was arrested and booked for allegedly thrashing students for being absent from a seminary in Hyderabad. According to reports, the police sprung into action after a video showing the incident went viral on social media.

In September 2019, a teenager, Hunain Bilal, lost his life after he was punched repeatedly, grabbed by his hair and slammed against the wall by his teacher at Lahore’s American Lycetuff School, because Bilal had failed to memorise his lesson.

In January 2020, a teacher at a government-run school, in the vicinity of Hazro, in Attock district in Punjab, punched, kicked and mercilessly thrashed a five-year-old child, Abdur Rehman, with a cane, when he found the child did not remember his lessons.

There were times when it was considered a teacher’s right to discipline an erring child. Former co-chairperson and member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), Uzma Noorani, says, “There was a time when it [corporal punishment] was perhaps justified, but times have changed and we need to bring about a change in our thinking. It is against the principle of human nature and HRCP has always been against severe punishments.”

In a system that lacks accountability and recognition of children’s rights, the figures of authority — teachers — often get free rein to grow tyrannical. The punishments such teachers mete out can be severe. News periodically appears in the media of a child returning home with broken bones or one in need of hospitalisation because of internal bleeding as a result of beating. And, as detailed above, there are sometimes reports of a child or two even losing their lives at the hands of their teachers.

The passage of a bill on corporal punishment, protecting the rights of innocent schoolchildren in Islamabad, is a much-needed step. However, the proof of the pudding will be in its implementation and if it can serve as a model for other parts of Pakistan

“Twenty-two million children are out of school in the country and a large number of students drop out due to physical abuse,” says Member of the National Assembly Mehnaz Akbar Aziz, who tabled the ICT [Islamabad Capital Territory] Prohibition of Corporal Punishment Bill in the National Assembly as a private member bill. “Moreover, there seems to be an acceptance of violence towards children in society, and it is a sad fact that, in 73 years, prohibition of corporal punishment wasn’t mandated by the state.”

“Given the harrowing tales of teachers’ punishment on children both in schools and madressahs, the bill on corporal punishment is a much needed and a very welcome step,” says Fazila Gulrez, a child rights activist. “However, this is not the first time that such measures have been taken.”

The bill prohibiting corporal punishment in the capital territory was passed by the National Assembly in February 2021, and hailed as “historic”. Noorani, however, agrees with Gulrez, and says, “The bill is only the first step — the important thing is its implementation.”

Noorani reminds us that in Sindh there is already a law to the same effect, the Sindh Prohibition of Corporal Punishment Act 2016, which prohibits corporal punishment or any other humiliating or degrading treatment, of any form, to children by any person. Other parts of Pakistan still lack such a law.

In 2006, the National Child Policy was adopted, which recognises the right of the child to protection from corporal punishment, yet there was no prohibition in the law at that time.

In 2010, a Prohibition of Corporal Punishment Bill was presented in parliament, which recommended prohibiting corporal punishment in educational and care settings. It was passed by the National Assembly in March 2013, but could not go further. In March 2014, a new Prohibition of Corporal Punishment Bill was presented in the National Assembly, but this, too, failed to pass through the Senate and therefore become law.

Two other pieces of legislation — the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill 2015 and the Prohibition of Corporal Punishment Bill 2015 — were introduced in parliament. Of these, the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, which was enacted in 2016 , did not clearly prohibit corporal punishment and did not amend Section 89 of the Penal Code, which allows its use. The Prohibition of Corporal Punishment Bill, applicable in the Islamabad Capital Territory, was adopted in February 2017 but did not prohibit corporal punishment in domestic situations.

The recently passed ICT Prohibition of Corporal Punishment Bill bans all forms of corporal punishment in educational institutions, including formal, non-formal, and seminaries, in both public and private sectors. The bill defines corporal punishment as: “Any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light it may be, which may involve hitting (smacking, slapping, spanking) a child with the hand or with an implement (a whip, stick, belt, shoe, wooden spoon, etc.).”

Under the proposed law, which will now go to the Senate, teachers will be penalised for assault and hurt inflicted upon children, regardless of intention, cancelling out the provisions of Section 89 of the Pakistan Penal Code, which allowed teachers and guardians to administer physical punishment in good faith and for the benefit of the child.

“I have seen teachers banging students’ heads against the wall, beating and stripping them off their dignity and self-esteem, being so vicious, sometimes ending in murdering the student,” says MNA Aziz. “For me, it remained the most challenging lacuna in our educational institutions.” Saying that the bill is one step in the right direction, she stresses that the bill extends to public and private schools and informal settings — orphanages, juvenile justice, madressahs — as well as the workplace.

Musician and founder of Zindagi Trust, Shehzad Roy, has also been campaigning to ban the practice of corporal punishment since 2013. “This bill is going to help a lot,” he says, “because it suspends Section 89 of the Pakistan Penal Code, which allows children to be beaten in good faith. Previously, because of Section 89, no one could be punished for beating a child as he or she could plead that they did so ‘in good faith’.”

Roy had filed a petition in the Islamabad High Court a year ago, which had led to a court order suspending Section 89 and effectively banning corporal punishment.

“Section 89 should have been done away with a long time ago,” says Noorani. She says, there was a time when vigilance committees would also visit the schools to check what was going on, but the practice has been discontinued.

Roy is of the opinion that the present law is against a mindset and aims to stop a cycle of violence. “A child is beaten at home, as the parents think it is their right, then in school teachers beat him,” he says. “When this child grows up, he has learnt that violence is the way to put things right so he, too, resorts to violence.”

What Took So Long?

Given the importance of the bill, one would have thought it would have been passed sooner. Why then did it take almost two years for the National Assembly to pass the bill? It has been reported that the bill was passed by the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Education in 2019 but it could not move ahead as discussion on it was stalled for 15 months, after which it was referred to another committee, where it remained pending.

Noorani thinks it is inordinately delayed. “After 70 years, we are thinking about our children, about our future generation,” she laments. “It’s not just an unwillingness to act — we have failed our children. There was no reason for the delay, yet it was only taken up when a child died due to torture.”

“The passage of a bill is a lengthy process and has to be vetted from many relevant committees,” says Aziz. “Also, the treasury always pushes back private members’ bills. But I persisted.” She is all praise for the support she received from various quarters.

Roy says, “There are a lot of bills that are not on a priority. There are multiple factors for the delay in the passage of a bill. The important thing is that when we filed a petition in the Islamabad High Court, it suspended Section 89.” Roy commends human rights minister Shireen Mazari for her support for the bill.

He adds, “It would have been easier if we had a strong social welfare department and good reporting system.” Furthermore, he says that, for the law to be properly implemented, “civil society has to create awareness that beating is more harmful than good. But, at the end of the day, the state has to implement it.”

Despite the bill having been hailed as a good step, Gulrez is not too hopeful. “Corporal punishment has become part of our DNA, both among parents and teachers. Unless there is a hyper strict implementation of the bill, I would say, with a heavy heart, that our children will continue to be beaten, tortured and exploited, no matter how many bills are passed,” she says.

“As an activist, we have carried out numerous campaigns for ending corporal punishment, but the results have not been fruitful,” Gulrez says. “These bills only help to make the government look ‘good’ in the eyes of the international community, when they present their reports on the situation of child rights in the country.”

Given our track record when it comes to the implementation of various bills passed over the years, Gulrez’s pessimism is not surprising or uncalled for. Yet one should not lose hope; keeping in mind the efforts put in and the involvement of politicians as well as civil society, there is much to look forward to.

Hopefully, setting the rules of business for its implementation will not take as long as it took the bill to be passed.

The writer is a freelance journalist and tweets @ naqviriz

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 11th, 2021

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