South Africa stands on the threshold of being able to realise a serious commitment to the prohibition of corporal punishment in the home, with a further amendment to the Children’s Act as Amended (No. 38 of 2005 and No. 41 of 2007) on the table. The successful passage of the current amendment through the Parliamentary process will, of course, not be enough to ensure that children are afforded the same level of protection from violence as adults already are. But I am convinced it will be a crucial step toward addressing gender-based violence and a logical follow-on to the Constitution, the Children’s Act itself and the Domestic Violence Act (No. 116 of 1998). In particular, it will in the medium- and long-term, reduce gender-based violence.
Resistance to the prohibition of corporal punishment is anticipated from various quarters, including the religious right (who claim that god instructs them to physically punish their children), senior officials in the Department of Social Development itself (who claim it didn’t do them any harm and that children cannot be disciplined any other way), and other sections of the population. Support from the gender sector would be most helpful in advocating for the prohibition; yet this sector has not only not come out strongly in support of prohibition, but has actually been known to advocate against it.
Violence against children in general (and corporal punishment in particular) is a form of gender-based violence and should be recognised as such. The truth is that the physical and sexual abuse meted out against children reflect the disregard of children’s rights generally in our society, and lay the groundwork for societal constructions of masculinity as prized and femininity as somehow less. It is precisely these constructions which create masculine aggression and entitlement and feminine compliance and victimisation.
We all know the consequences of living in a society which prizes masculinity and considers femininity somehow inferior. Still, they bear repeating:
South Africa is still the rape capital of the world, and has (according to the World Health Organisation) the highest rates of domestic violence in the world. It is a country in which a woman is killed every eight hours by her partner and in which over 800 children are killed a year, more than double the global average.
There is clearly something rotten in the state of South Africa and many years of activism have not reduced the numbers of victims. Why? What are we not doing? And the answer is not ‘not working with men’. That is no longer true, and the role of changing the construction of masculinity as a key element of ending gender-based violence is well recognised.
In truth, the situation is complex and subtle, but the short answer is that South African society provides fertile soil for these high levels of abuse because of its deeply patriarchal and misogynist character which glorifies socially constructed masculinity (strong, in charge, sexually active) and denigrates socially constructed femininity (weak, ineffectual and sexually passive).
What we’re not doing is recognising the profound effect that our tolerance for violence against children has on our tolerance for violence against women. Nowhere is this so clear as in attitudes towards and the use of corporal punishment on children. It seems to me to be a relatively small step from notions of parents’ right and entitlement to physically chastise their children to intimate partner violence and rape. Both are about power and control, both assume that abuse and violence are legitimate responses to feeling out of power and out of control. Both are intended to put the victim ‘in their place’ and to make tangible the power of the abuser.
The consequences of childhood adversity are many, wide-ranging and long-lasting. And what is becoming increasingly clear is that physical violence against children is the crucible in which adult physical and sexual violence is formed.
The links between experiencing severe physical abuse in childhood and adult functioning are better recognised than the serious consequences of even the so-called “little slaps”. We know now, with certainty, that the “little slaps” in early childhood can cause permanent damage to the neural structure and function of the developing brain itself. In addition, physical punishment can cause alterations in the dopaminergic regions of the brain associated with vulnerability to the abuse of drugs and alcohol. These factors have, in turn, been shown to increase the likelihood of adult aggression, spousal abuse (in men) re-victimisation (in women) and child abuse.
Part of the risk of allowing care-givers the right to ‘reasonably chastise’ their children is the road it opens for more severe abuse. Research done for her PhD thesis by Amelia Kleijn in the wake of the 2001 rape of nine-month-old Baby Tshepang, found that, for a group of ten convicted perpetrators of the rape of children under the age of three years:
- All the respondents who participated in the study recalled their anger on the day that they raped a very young child.
- While physical maltreatment alone was not found to relate to the later rape of a very young child, poverty, maltreatment, and attachment difficulties converged in these men; and
- All reported experiencing violent punishment at the hands of their care-givers.
If we want to eliminate violence against women, we have to raise children in new ways, help them develop self-discipline, deal with conflict and differences without resorting to violence, and to be protective of the rights of others. Hitting teaches children the wrong lessons ― such as that it is acceptable to impose your will by force on someone else; that children have no say or rights or dignity; that bigger, stronger (more powerful) people are entitled to hurt those who are smaller and weaker (less powerful); that a violent response is an appropriate and socially sanctioned way of dealing with conflict and disagreement; that loving and hurting are somehow linked.
In making sure that the clause prohibiting corporal punishment in the home, and that this is coupled with support for non-violent, nurturing parenting and positive discipline organisations in the women’s sector can take a significant step forward in ending gender-based violence.
Carol Bower has worked to end violence against women and children for almost all of her professional life. She now lives in the middle of nowhere fulfilling the ageing hippy dream and making as much trouble as she can. She is currently working with Sonke Gender Justice on improving attitudes towards and the practice of parenting as a key strategy for preventing the sexual and physical abuse of children.
 Teicher M. 2002. The Neurobiology of Child Abuse. Scientific American, March 2002: 70.
 Sheu Y-S, Polcan A, Anderson CM, et al. Harsh corporal punishment is associated with increased T2 relaxation time in dopamine-rich regions. Neuroimage 2010;53:412-9.
 Gershoff, E. 2013. Spanking and child development: We know enough now to stop hitting our children. Child Development Perspectives. 7(3): 133–137
 Bower C. 2013. Prohibition of corporal and humiliating punishment in the home. PAN: Children Topical Guide. Accessible here.
There are a number of good places to find out more about the dangers and ineffectiveness of corporal punishment and about parenting. These are just a few of them:
The WGPD is a loose network of South African NGOs working to prohibit all forms of corporal punishment, including in the home, and to support nurturing non-violent parenting and positive discipline.
A very useful place to find the significant body of research on the negative consequences of corporal punishment for children and for society.
South Africa’s first and only high quality online parenting magazine that caters to a growing demographic of educated parents who are becoming increasingly conscious of how their parental decisions are impacting the health of their children, themselves and the environment.
A wide range of information on parenting in African contexts.