Spare the rod, spare the child

Fatima Bulla
We are often told that if we spare the rod we spoil the child. Does that mean if we spoil the rod we spare the child?

Religious and secular scholars increasingly opine that sparing the rod does not spoil the child. If anything, their take is that sparing the rod actually spares the child.

A High Court ruling last month that parents and teachers who inflict corporal punishment on children are in breach of Zimbabwe’s Constitution has divided opinion.

The Constitution guarantees people’s right to protection from “physical or psychological torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (Section 53), and from “all forms of violence from public or private sources” (Section 52(a)).

Justice David Mangota also held that article 69(2)(c) of the Education Act, which authorises corporal punishment in schools, was unconstitutional.

Informed predominantly by Christianity and African Traditional Religion, many Zimbabweans use biblical texts and traditional African practice to inform their attitudes towards coporal punishment.

Presenting a paper at a seminar in Harare last week, Ezra Chitando — Professor of Religion in the Department of Religious Studies, Classics and Philosophy at the University of Zimbabwe – said there was need to emphasise dialogue and hospitality, and to take children’s views seriously.

He also critiqued the selective application of Bible verses and tradition when debating corporal punishment.

“I have come across people who say even if I go to … a country where corporal punishment is not allowed, I will take my child to the Zimbabwean Embassy and administer corporal punishment there because this is what we as Zimbabweans do.

“Those who oppose corporal punishment are presented as uncritical Africans who are taking on other people’s cultures. Under the same argument is the contention that corporal punishment is successful and that it works.

“One of the consistent phrases used is that ‘we in Zimbabwe have become who we are because we were beaten’. Those who are beaten become successful; those who are not are unsuccessful,” Prof Chitando said.

African culture provides for counselling of children by elders. In addition proverbs coined by elders suggest the need for patience and dialogue.

Some practices like breaking a water gourd were used by an aggrieved father. A father who would break a gourd at his late father’s grave and the child would face spiritual repercussions which would cease upon his or her repentance.

According to Dr Joseph Mujere from the UZ Department of History, there is need to understand the origins of corporal punishment, which he indicates has its Zimbabwean roots in the violence of the colonial state.

“Some times we tend to idealise corporal punishment to say it’s African yet it’s not African, probably something coming from the colonial period. One of the things we need to pursue is to do with the etymology of certain words which deal with corporal punishment.

“Words like ‘kuranga’ in Shona; does it necessarily refer to corporal punishment or it just means that you are sitting down with a child and discussing with them and showing them where they are wrong and advising them not to do the same later again?

“It’s unfortunate that most of the things people think are African are things developed in the colonial period, especially corporal punishment,” Dr Mujere said.

Scholars note how the Bible has been selectively deployed to justify corporal punishment.

Verse like Proverbs 13:1, 13:24, 22:15, 23: 13-14, 29:15 – as noted by Prof Chitando – form the basis of selective corporal punishment, yet others like Exodus 21:15,17 and Deuteronomy 18:18-21 have been ignored.

“I’m challenging the static reading of the rod which is exclusively referred to as punishment. If you have seen Proverbs is exclusively about punishing the boy child because he was the one who would go into the public space.

“If in 2017 we are talking about the empowerment of the girl child do we go back to a text that appears to be about boy children or we need to be exclusive and recognise that Proverbs has a masculine orientation?

“When Christian adults do wrong they pray to God for forgiveness; when their children do wrong they beat them up. I think there is a contradiction there. As adults we want to appeal for mercy and understanding from God because we have transgressed, but we are not willing to grant the same to our children when they transgress,” he said.

He said the “rod” could be interpreted as not only an instrument of inflicting pain as shown in Zechariah 11:7 and Psalm 23:4b.

According to Moyo, Khewu and Bayaga (2014), corporal punishment is defined as a kind of discipline that entails direct infliction of pain on the body. However it can also be taken beyond the physical to emotional and psychological domains; for example verbal abuse and deprivation of basic needs like food and denial of the use of the toilet.

Kudzai Biri, a lecturer in Christian Theology and Theological Teachings of the Church in Contemporary Zimbabwe at the UZ, queried contradictions surrounding the identity of Zimbabweans in relating to corporal punishment.

“My question is on the seeming contradictions that we have in Zimbabwe. I understand, if I am not wrong, that this issue of corporal punishment children have rights not to be … I think falls on the locus of human rights.

“And, from a Pan-African perspective we do not uphold human rights because of our African socio, religious, cultural ethics. So to me I see a lot of contradictions because we are a ‘Christian country’, we are Pan-African, but the things coming up actually contradict what we claim,” she said.

Fainos Mangena, a Professor of Ethics, queried the future of a society that did not condone corporal punishment.

“In my world a child cannot sin hence should be beaten. I do not know how we will operate in homes without corporal punishment,” he said.

An article published by the UN Tribune in late 2016 said 51 countries had outlawed corporal punishment.

Kenya, Tunisia, South Sudan, the Republic of Congo and Togo are on the list of countries which have outlawed corporal punishment.

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