Submitted by Mshilla Hellen Mghoi
At the height of the deadly Lords Resistance Army (LRA) war with the government of Uganda, back in 2002, the little Peter (not his real name) had no one to turn to for food, shelter, or protection or even sympathy when he got hurt or injured or when he unintentionally made mistakes and got into trouble with angry strangers or adults who cared least of the protection of the right of the child.
Early in the morning as each child returned home to their parents and guardians, Peter was back in the wild world of abandoned children on the streets of Gulu Town to fend of his life.
‘He was an abandoned child with nowhere to call home. His early life was on the streets. He slept in the streets and accompanied night commuting children who shared him some food for survival. When others returned home in the morning, he remained in the streets of Gulu without any care from anyone…That’s how he lived. Now his home is here.’ explains Mama Lilly, his caregiver now at SOS Village Gulu.
A good Samaritan spotted the boy on the streets and took him to SOS Village some four years ago. At first, Mama Lilly explains, the boy’s behavior was extremely difficult to handle.
‘He fought very often, stole and even escaped from the home very every now and then often’ she adds.
But Peter is now totally changed. When this writer talked to him on Monday 11th May 2010 at his SOS village home in Gulu, he was beaming with boy.
‘I like playing basketball and cooking.’ He said.
Asked what he really likes at SOS Gulu his quick answer was ‘Fruits and food’.
In the real world where people went about their busy day to day schedules, not many if any adults would give Peter a fruit let alone a meal. The kind of behavior he had before would force people to beat him up and hate him, increasing the psycho social problem the boy already had.
It took the understanding and skill of the SOS Village Gulu Director Charles Kiyimba to rescue the boy.
‘When we reviewed his case we realized that he could not survive in a normal family setting because his hyperactive character would result to being abused again and again. …We chose to keep the boy here and see how to assist him.’ He says.
Kiyimba believes that it is possible to discipline children with hyperactive behaviors like that Peter had earlier without necessarily violating their rights, like beating them up as most people would do.
” There are special institutions where such children can be assisted because they demand too much attention.’ He says.
He explains that usually such schools will hold about ten children per class to give enough time for the teacher to meet each child’s high demand of attention. This way it becomes very practical to bring up the children in a loving and caring manner without beating them up or using any form of violent discipline.
That is why a decision was made to take the young boy to a special institution away from SOS Village. Peter comes back to his ‘home’ SOS Village Gulu only during vacations.
Like many children would say, Peter hates when people beat him up even when he is on the wrong. ‘ I feel very bad when I am beaten up’.
Nancy (not her real name) has been in SOS Village Gulu since 2002 when she was in p2. She says talking to children who do wrong is better than beating them up. She remembers a time when she refused to mop the house.
‘I was so scared. I thought I was going to be beaten. I felt so nice when instead of being beaten my mother (child care giver) talked to me. From that time I mop the house happily’.|
Nancy likes housework such as cooking, and playing netball. She wants to be a nurse when she grows up. She hates when teachers cane students at school.
Her happiest moment is the day when she was brought to live at SOS village Gulu.
‘I was very happy because they gave me everything… she recalls.’
Nancy and Peter are among the close to 120 children who were under the care of SOS Village Gulu when this writer visited them. They were only lucky. In Gulu alone, a lot of children continue to be subjected to child abuse even after the end of the LRA war some four years ago.
Like in many indigenous cultures across the world cultural practices of the Acholi people embrace violent methods of enforcing child discipline both physical and emotional. The degree to which the beating is done varies from one culture to another. In some cases a child is beaten up, pinched and spanked even at the tender age of 0ne year. In such cultures, in the course of being taught manners, a child is beaten shy and ‘humble’ at the prime of their age.
Because of these deeply rooted cultural backgrounds the question of whether to beat up or not to beat up a child with behavioural problems or deny him/her some essential rights like food or shelter, freedom of movement and association or not, remains a very controversial.
Some of the caregivers I talked to agreed that much as it is a regulation not to beat children but rather use positive correction approaches to shape their character, it is difficult to bring up children without ‘a spank, a pinch or even a serious beating at one time or other during their lifetime’. Obeying the rule is one thing but the reality of their belief system stands clearly apart. Beating up a child to discipline them is kind of a given.
Many other people agree to this view. Culturally, sayings such as ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ are taken as lifetime rules to be adhered to religiously.
It is common to hear people make such comments as ‘ I am like this because my parents beat me to correct me’. This goes on beside the fact that more and more cases of child abuse continue to be reported in the media.
Although there are some negative repercussions on the children who grow under institutional child care, what happy children like Nancy and Peter would have gone through outside these institutions of Child care is obviously a harsh environment. While such institutions strive to uphold protection of the rights of the child the society out there continuously resists them.
In many schools corporal punishment has been taken as the means to yield high grades come end of year exams. In an open day at one of the leading schools in Central Uganda, parents were informed that ‘here we beat children who break the rules. If you do not want your child to be beaten, please take the child elsewhere’.
As the message was driven across, many parents at the meeting clapped and applauded.
Thirteen year old Caroline (not her real name) was a leading student in her primary school and landed in that school. But her first week was the most miserable. A teacher, angry with some noise makers in her class went on the rampage beating up each of them seriously. Her right hand was injured and she bled profusely. Although she had to go to the clinic for treatment, beyond that nothing was done to hold the teacher accountable for his criminal action of infringing bodily harm to the innocent child.
‘I could not write with my right hand for the whole week. I feel so bad because I was not even making any noise but the teacher just beat all of us like that. In our school, beating is the norm.’ she adds.
Too often in such schools innocent children are subjected to crude methods of humiliating collective punishment. Some are ordered to lie on the floor face down and they are whipped many times until their buttocks swell. Others are made to kneel with hands up under the scotching sun, while others are suspended or even expelled from school for mistakes done by one of them or for allegations that cannot be proven. As a result, to survive in such schools many children learn to be ‘smart’ in telling lies and doing a lot of wrong things in hiding including colluding to kill or harm their own leaders, teachers or even burn property and even the school. Cases of schools going on strike and burning dormitories, laboratories and classes have been on the media for long.
UNICEF defines violent disciplines as “… actions taken by a parent or caregiver that are intended to cause a child physical pain or emotional distress as a way to correct behavior and act as a deterrent . It can take psychological aggression and physical, or corporal punishment”.
Although UNICEF and government organs responsible for the rights of the child agree that violent discipline on any child is an abuse of their right that is punishable by law, far and wide the rules remain on paper far and wide. On the other hand, not much is easily available to parents and caregivers outside institutions of child care that gives the alternative positive correction methods to raise children.
The rules and laws that challenge bad cultural practices related to child care exist but the antedote to these are scarce if not unknown to the majority of the parents guardians and caregivers. In the case where the alternative methods are known, the environment to effectively put them in practice is not available. For example to give a child full attention needs ample time to each individual child but even in schools in Africa today like in Gulu it has long been the norm to have over 50 children per teacher in class at a time. In cases of war, some classes have hit a record of 130 pupils per teacher.
Perhaps this may be one of the reasons that data on the United Nations Children’s Education Fund (UNICEF) website reveal that in a recent study done in thirty Seven (37) countries across the world, eighty-six percent (86%) of children aged two (2) to four (4) years experience violent discipline. Of these, two(2) out of three (3) children are subject to physical punishment.
Far and wide parents, caregivers, and teachers are faced with the challenging demand to raise children into responsible adults without use of any form of violence, are faced with a dilemma as to whether to follow the international guidelines that forbid violent discipline or follow the common traditional and at times religious methods that embrace violent discipline.
Much as it can be extremely emotionally demanding on all who at some point in life must take care of children, there is a milestone that the human race must struggle and reach. This is to bring up children in a humane way devoid of abuse of their rights. By so doing there shall arise a generation of people that have a firm foundation of peace and will have no problem perpetuating the same.
The matter is especially importance given the many wars peace builders across the world must have to handle. But just how to ensure that this is done is understandably harsh to imagine at the moment. UNICEF and other Civil Society organizations doing child rights advocacy work are doing a lot to spread the message across about the protection of child rights. However on the ground are the challenges mentioned above. Admittedly even many of those working for the rights of child will ultimately abuse the right of a child somewhere in life.
The fact is child abusers cut across all carriers and disciplines. Something urgently needs to be done to change the mindset of the society to an extent that they accept and internalize and put into practice these rights.
One approach is to introduce in schools examinable non violent social practices including positive methods of instilling discipline among both students and teachers. These practices would be rewarded in a manner that makes the students want to be part of the winners, while their teachers and schools are also honored for the same. This could also be extended at a later stage to a greater collection of schools for example by district or by region.
Even as we wait for this or any other approach to be adopted, the question of just who is to blame for the violence among adults across the globe is prime? If cultures and religions alike encourage violence for corrective purposes upto today, how much more of violence and wars do we have ahead of the future?
The fact is that human beings tend to condone violent approaches to conflict at one point in life because almost each one of them was treated violently when he/she played into some conflict or the other, however minimal, during his/her upbringing. But who just is ready to take up the burden of eliminating child abuse once and for all or how long it shall take to achieve this important goal remains the big puzzle every responsible citizen of the world faces?
Whereas the answers to these questions may not be concrete, the seriousness of the problem of abuse of child rights, especially in today’s society where even lawmakers go to parliament to defend corporal punishment in schools, remains an issue that should take the lead in all forums of decision making right from the village grassroots to the international arena. It is a matter of urgency.
Just how urgently and effectively this matter is addressed is a strong determinant factor to the success of the peace in the world for future generations.