Beatings and violent physical punishments persist in many Middle East schools despite international laws banning abuse of children and widespread concern about the effects of corporal punishment.
Physical abuse is a grim reality in schools in the region, according to recent studies by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and UNICEF, which highlight Lebanon as a country of key concern.
The use of corporal punishment is one of the leading factors behind Lebanon’s rising school dropout rate, the HRW report said.
Bill Van Esveld, senior researcher for children’s rights at HRW, told Arab News that reports suggest that up to 76 percent of schoolchildren in Lebanon have been physically abused by teachers.
Beatings involved being whipped with an electric cable, or struck with rulers or classroom objects, and often resulted in broken bones.
Other punishments included “slapping the face or back of the neck or head, twisting ears, pulling hair, hitting the hands with a ruler, being shoved into walls or desks, or being beaten with objects to hand such as a book, electrical cable and a propane-tank hose.”
Van Esveld said: “The injuries can be severe. We met one child who had suffered a deep cut on his hand that bled for days. Another boy’s nose was broken. One boy, aged just six, said his ‘Miss’ hit the children in his class regularly and painfully, and that he did not like going to school and felt afraid in his classroom.”
Corporal punishment and verbal abuse at school “mean that adults are inflicting pain and fear on children,” he said.
“No scientific study has ever demonstrated a long-term benefit of corporal punishment. But myriad studies find that corporal punishment causes both short and long-term harm, from heightened dropout rates and lower educational achievement to increased incidences of emotional disorders such as depression, aggression and even suicidal ideation.”
Dadu Shin, author of the watchdog’s report — “I Don’t Want My Child to Be Beaten: Corporal Punishment in Lebanon’s Schools” — said: “In documented cases, children avoided or dropped out of school, or their parents pulled them out of school due to the pain, fear, humiliation and risk of further harm from corporal punishment.
“Surveys show that corporal punishment is one of the leading factors behind school dropouts in Lebanon,” he said.
Lebanon’s Education Ministry has prohibited all forms of corporal punishment in public schools since 1974. In 2001, the ministry issued a detailed circular to both public and private school staff banning corporal punishment as well as verbal abuse.
Yet due to a lack of enforcement, surveys have found that widespread abuse persists.
Van Esveld said teachers hit and humiliate children for a host of reasons, including the knock-on effects of the Syrian war and consequent overcrowding in Lebanon’s classrooms. Since the conflict in Syria began in 2011, enrolment in Lebanon’s public schools has doubled, with roughly 210,000 Lebanese and 210,000 Syrian students in primary and secondary schools in 2018.
“The ministry warned in 2014 that overstretched, undertrained teachers were also increasingly likely to resort to corporal punishment in light of the influx of Syrian refugee children into the public school system,” Shin said.
Elsewhere across the region, governments are working to crack down on corporal punishment.
In the UAE, physical punishment in state schools was banned in 1998, while in Saudi Arabia the Ministry of
Education has told schools to ban hitting and beating students.
In 2017, the Kingdom also announced it was launching a campaign called No Hit Zone, which aimed to show parents alternative methods of disciplining a child, and called for similar projects in the region.
However, in many schools, the old adage “spare the rod, spoil the child” continues to play a part in the classroom.
Van Esveld said there is a lack of data about the prevalence of corporal punishment in other Middle East and North African (MENA) countries, but HRW is beginning research into the problem.
“News reports from different MENA countries indicate it is a serious problem; children have reportedly died due to corporal punishment at school in Egypt, for example,” he told Arab News.
“A forthcoming World Bank report indicates that the prevalence in Lebanon is worse than the global average.”
UNICEF has also highlighted widespread corporal punishment, both in the classroom and in the home, in its latest report, “Violent Discipline in the MENA Region.” Of 85 million children (aged between two and 14) in the region, 71 million are estimated to have experienced some form of violent discipline.
Nisrine Tawile, a child protection program specialist at UNICEF, told Arab News that the organization is launching a study on the causes of violence in schools, with the results expected by mid-2020. The study will be carried out in partnership with Lebanon’s Ministry of Education and Higher Education, and Save the Children.
“Violence against children can have an important long-term impact. When children feel safe, without worry and threat, they are calm and focused, they learn better, they grow up as stronger and active contributing members of society,” said Tawile.
“Violence can cause harm to the physical health and emotional well-being of a child. Harm can include physical injuries, but can also negatively affect the self-esteem of children, depression, school dropouts … sexual violence can lead to unwanted pregnancies, STIs and HIV.”
HRW and UNICEF hope to see the tide turning in Lebanon.
In May 2018, the country’s Education Ministry launched a comprehensive child protection policy, which Tawile described as “a very important step.”
Van Esveld said that more accountability and transparency around complaints of corporal punishment are needed. He hoped the ministry’s new policy banning all corporal punishment will have a positive influence on a new generation of schoolchildren.
“This is the point where policy can make a big difference. The ministry should give regular updates about how many teachers it has sanctioned, what those sanctions were, and whether it referred any to law enforcement,” he said.