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Europe is moving towards a total ban of domestic violence against children

Strasbourg 21/01/2008
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A majority of the 47 Council of Europe member states have now committed themselves to put an end to all corporal punishment of children. Full prohibition in law has so far been adopted by 18 member states and at least seven others have publicly pledged to do the same within the near future. If these governments fulfil their commitment, Europe will be more than halfway to universal prohibition. This is welcome progress.

Some positive steps have also been taken in other parts of the world. Last year, New Zealand became the first English-speaking country to prohibit all corporal punishment, including in the family. And so did three Latin American countries: Uruguay, Venezuela and Chile.

They had responded to recommendations in the report of the UN Secretary General’s Study on violence against children, submitted to the General Assembly in October 2006. Its main message was that "no violence against children is justifiable; all violence against children is preventable". It recommended all states to move quickly to prohibit all forms of violence against children, including all corporal punishment, before the end of 2009.

This was another strong challenge to the still fairly widespread opinion that relations inside the family are no matter for outsiders. Already, the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted and ratified by almost every member state of the United Nations, had made clear that there are situations in which authorities have to protect a child from all forms of violence behind the family door.

This is not a zero-sum-game between children and parents. The Convention is very family-friendly, it stresses the absolute importance of a good family environment and the need, in some cases, for community support to parents in crisis. Violence against children is a reflection of family breakdown and calls for the protection of the life, well-being and dignity of the child. This is a major reason why the prevention of domestic violence against children is nowadays recognised as a human rights concern.

The purpose of prohibiting corporal punishment of children is precisely prevention. The idea is to encourage a change of attitudes and practice and to promote non-violent methods of child-rearing. An unambiguous message of what is unacceptable is very important. Adults responsible for children are sometimes confused about how to handle difficult situations. The line should simply be drawn between physical or psychological violence on the one hand and non-violence on the other.

The problem is deep and serious. As part of their daily lives, children across Europe and the world continue to be spanked, slapped, hit, smacked, shaken, kicked, pinched, punched, caned, flogged, belted, beaten and battered in the name of “discipline”, mainly by adults whom they depend upon.

This violence may be a deliberate act of punishment or just the impulsive reaction of an irritated parent or teacher. Both cases constitute a breach of human rights. Respect for human dignity and the right to physical integrity are universal principles. But despite this, social and legal acceptance of adults hitting children and inflicting other humiliating treatment on them persists.

Corporal punishment of children is often inhuman or degrading, and it invariably violates their physical integrity, demonstrates disrespect for their human dignity and undermines their self-esteem. This sense of deeper damage was described by the Polish doctor, writer and educationalist Janusz Korczak who once said: “There are many terrible things in the world, but the worst is when a child is afraid of his father, mother or teacher”.

Special exceptions allowing for some level of violence against children in otherwise universally applicable laws against assault are therefore particularly unfortunate. They also breach the basic human rights principle of equal protection under the law.

The invention of concepts such as “reasonable punishment” and “lawful correction” arises from the perception of children as the property of their parents. Such “rights” are based on the power of the stronger over the weaker and are upheld by means of violence and humiliation.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe called in 2004 for a Europe-wide ban of corporal punishment. It stated that “any corporal punishment of children is in breach of their fundamental right to human dignity and physical integrity. The fact that such corporal punishment is still lawful in certain member states violates their equally fundamental right to the same legal protection as adults. Striking a human being is prohibited in European society and children are human beings. The social and legal acceptance of corporal punishment of children must be ended.”

Progress has been made since then, but some member states have not acted upon this suggestion or those from the UN study. In order to encourage further discussion, I have been in correspondence with the government heads of those member states which have yet to reform their laws adequately.

Their responses give a hint that further progress is possible. In fact, no one defended the use of corporal punishment. Seven indicated that reforms to prohibit all corporal punishment were in progress. Some of the others replied that their existing law was sufficient, but demonstrated an open attitude towards further progress and considering explicit reform.

Of course, eliminating corporal punishment requires more than legal reform. Sustained public education and awareness-raising of the law and of children’s right to protection is required, together with promotion of positive, non-violent relationships with children. The Council of Europe programme “Building a Europe for and with children” is promoting the abolition of corporal punishment through law reform, the promotion of positive parenting and awareness-raising efforts likely to change public attitudes and behaviours.

Children have had to wait the longest to be given equal legal protection from deliberate assaults – a protection the rest of us take for granted. It is extraordinary that children, whose developmental state and small size is acknowledged to make them particularly vulnerable to physical and psychological harm, have been singled out for less protection from assaults on their fragile bodies, minds and dignity.

Challenging legal and social acceptance of violence has been a fundamental part of women’s struggle for equal status. The same applies to children: there could not be a more symbolic reflection of children’s persisting low status as property than adults’ assumption of their “right” and even “duty”, to hit children.

Thomas Hammarberg