Mumbai: A toxic combination of poverty, poorly-paid teachers with anti-migrant prejudice and a lack of training on nonviolent discipline in government schools means marginalised children are significantly more likely to experience corporal punishment, said a new study.

Corporal punishment is a form of violence against children and is illegal in India.

Yet 80% of marginalised children report being punished by teachers, while an average of 43% said they were regularly beaten, up to three times a week, according to a new report by Agrasar, an NGO. In some schools the number of regularly beaten students rose to 88%.

The abuse does not end along with the school day. The majority of these children also experienced beatings at home (74%), while a similar proportion of parents admitting to doling out beatings at home (71%).

These are the findings of a survey from a randomised sample of 521 children and 100 parents in Gurugram, an area which experienced a 29% increase in migrant arrivals between 2000 and 2011, largely from poorer states, such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Uttarakhand and Madhya Pradesh.

However, “given that the same mechanisms of economic deprivation and social exclusion are at work, the findings apply to disadvantaged children elsewhere in India”, the report said.

No positive outcomes of corporal punishment have been found, while it is established that physical and mental forms of abuse can have a detrimental effect on child health and wellbeing, including mental-health problems, behavioural issues and cognitive ability, according to the report.

The fear and stress associated with corporal punishment can create “school-phobia”, leading to increased dropouts, low-retention rates and poor academic scores, significantly impacting on education outcomes, the report said. Children who have experienced such abuse are also more likely to display criminal behaviour, commit violent crimes as adults and suffer from substance abuse.

In 1992, India became one of 128 countries to agree to the United Nations (UN) Convention of Rights of the Child 1989, which outlawed school corporal punishment and required the government under article 28(2) to ensure that “school discipline is administered in a manner consistent with the child's human dignity”.

The Right to Education Act 2009 further enshrined child safety in schools, stating no child “shall be subjected to physical punishment or mental harassment”.

Yet, despite such legal protections, recent government studies have found the problem persists. Social structures enforcing the normalcy of corporal punishment remain pervasive in Indian society.

An estimated 65% of children are physically punished by teachers, according to a joint 2007 study by Childline and the Ministry of Women and Child Development. This figure rises to 99.9% of children experiencing corporal punishment at school when mental harassment is included, a 2009 study by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights found.

Beaten at school and at home: A daily occurrence

Teachers do not appear to discriminate on the basis of age when it comes to meting out corporal punishment. Both younger and older children alike experienced similarly severe forms of punishment and “almost on a daily basis”, the report found.

The only difference is that younger children are more likely to experience physical punishment, compared to older children who are more likely to suffer from verbal abuse.

“Physical punishments were given to us when we were young. Now we get mostly verbal punishments, for example we are being ridiculed for our mistakes in front of the class,” said one girl respondent in the 8th standard.

Marginalised children were found to experience corporal punishment more frequently, with 88% of those surveyed reporting they are regularly beaten at school, up to three times a week. This is “significantly higher than then average and does not even include verbal abuse”, the report said.

Many children reported verbal and physical abuse on a daily basis, with at least one child reporting he experienced physical punishment “two times a day minimum”.

As a result, many have become accustomed to such experiences as part of the school routine and fabric of their education experience--71% of children believed it’s okay to be beaten up “for a reason”, having been taught its for “their own good” and “necessary”.

The types of physical and mental punishment distributed by teachers vary in levels of pain, with slapping, ear-pulling, denial of bathroom use and forced periods of standing mentioned as “not so serious” punishment forms.

This can increase to more painful types, such as a teacher caning palms and calves, striking the knuckles with a duster or scales and beating backs and heads with their hands, all of which are the “most common forms of physical punishment”.

Many schools keep a dedicated stick to beat children, the report found.

Cases of brutal punishment, combined with “psychological torture”, were also narrated by the surveyed children.

Banging students’ heads against a wall was turned into “a game” by one teacher, with several children recounting that he would often pretend three or four times that he was going to bang the child’s head against the wall before actually doing it.

Mental abuse is even more frequently handed out, which for the children of migrant workers in Gurugram often consist of derogatory and racist slurs which many children do not even recognise “constitute a form of corporal punishment”.

Referencing their low socioeconomic status, these children are labelled as “Bihari” or “Bengali”--denigrating and catch-all terms for any non-locals, regardless of their actual state-of-origin.

These slurs are often followed up with insults such as “donkey”, “good for nothing”, “uneducated”, “illiterate” and comments that they had had “a bad upbringing”, which tend to affect older children the most.

Girl students are subjected to relatively more verbal harassment than boys, often framed in sexist language which instill “toxic gender stereotypes”. Teachers were found to often resort to comments about their looks, age and weight, “recommending” marriage instead of education and minimising their capabilities and skills compared to male peers.

Both male and female teachers were found to mete out corporal punishment in a “ritualised and uniform way”, with marginal differences in the severity and frequency of punishment they enforced.

While many teachers were found to slap or hit students, some punished students “with brutal and cruel violence that requires creativity and premeditation”.

Almost all parents (91%) approve of teachers using corporal punishment and use it at home themselves. However, this figure is likely to be higher, as parents tend to not consider “mild” forms of physical abuse and verbal harassment as a form of corporal punishment.

Trapped in abusive environments

“A complex mix of social and structural factors perpetuates corporal punishment in our classrooms,” the report found.

While wealthier, better-educated children are not immune to receiving, disadvantaged children are exposed to a number of influential risk factors which increase their likelihood of experiencing corporal punishment.

Low-income families, living in poor conditions and often with both illiterate parents working long hours in the informal sector, are unable to properly support their children’s education.

Absence during the day, followed by exhaustion in the evening, means parent’s “emotional resources” are largely consumed by their struggle for survival.

Children must manage their own homework and school activities themselves, often in a troubled environment “characterised by maltreatment and neglect” brought about by poverty and “existential” stress.

Even mothers who were “homemakers” in Gurugram were found to interact with their children “very little” over school matters. They assumed that the child would bring up any serious issues with her if there were any and relied on elder siblings plus the child’s “own motivation to pursue their studies and education”.

Failure to submit homework, poor test-performance and school absences are major reasons for receiving corporal punishment and which end up hurting children from low socioeconomic backgrounds the most.

Even if they desired, parents are often unable to move their child from the free local government school to another, lacking the financial means to entertain other options.

Migrant children often become the target of “disdain and contempt” by teachers who withhold empathy and support. Teachers punish children for their inability to articulate themselves as per the teacher’s “expectations”, as bad language (commonly used at home by both parents and children) and poor language skills enter the classroom.

Periods of absence as migrant children return to their native state for long stretches of time, or even accompany their parents to work, further antagonise teachers, the report said. Upon their return to school, children are unfairly punished for their parents’ decision to travel.

Such teacher attitudes are a result of sustained social stigma attached to the less-educated, migrant population, with discrimination against the “labour class” rubbing off onto their children.

Teachers feel it is not worthwhile to teach migrant children as “they will only be cleaning someone’s house later anyways”, the report found.

They believe the children are unable to perform well in school and think rationally, as teachers see poverty as “a genetic predisposition” which means the children are unworthy of education. They fail to understand that a lack of opportunity and access to resources is why they are struggling with formal education.

The social divide is also keeping parents and teachers from interacting and establishing a working relationship, further impeding the child’s education.

Poorly-paid, over-worked and under-resourced teachers operating in sub-par working conditions further adds to the problem, as teachers “vent out their anger and act aggressively towards students” and “rarely show awareness for professional conduct”.

Poor governance, such as a lack of Corporal Punishment Monitoring Cells--set up by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights to ensure the ban on corporal punishment is enforced--means unethical teacher conduct is not always properly dealt with, the report said.

The danger is that a toxic combination of all the above-mentioned factors means children are arbitrarily subjected to forms of violence, with no repercussions for teachers already operating with minimal oversight.

Children were found to be punished for “normal childlike behaviours” like going to the bathroom, talking in class and during breaks, running around the school yard and fighting with other children.

The cost of corporal punishment

Around 53% of children surveyed never tell their parents if they have been punished at school, undermining a “trusted relationship” between parent and child. This also means many children are internalising potentially traumatic experiences, with severe consequences for their mental health and wellbeing, the report found.

Perceiving that learning and corporal punishment “go hand in hand”, children become desensitised to the violence they see everyday and even lose the ability to identify milder types of physical and mental harassment.

As violence goes unrecognised, resistance builds which in turn can lead to the severity of the violence increasing. Children who experience violence are also more likely to “become violent perpetrators themselves”.

There is a risk that through the prevalence of corporal punishment, schools are teaching children “on a large scale that violence is okay” and is contributing to levels of violence in Indian society at large, the report said.

(Sanghera is a writer and researcher with IndiaSpend.)

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