The Children’s Act 2018 is unique: it has made Nepal the first South Asian country to criminalize corporal punishment against children. Section 66 (d) of the Act criminalizes physical and mental torture or degrading treatment of children at home, at school or at any other place. The Act lists 18 acts as ‘violence’ and 11 acts as ‘sexual offense’ against children. Those guilty of the aforementioned crimes will be slapped with a fine not exceeding Rs. 50,000 and jail-time of up to a year.
Anybody can lodge a complaint against guardians, teachers, parents or persons committing or planning violence or a sex offense against children. “After a complaint is lodged, the related authority conducts an investigation. Depending on the result of the investigation, a case can be filed in the children court of the respective District Court,” explains Rewat Prasad Kharel, an advocate and professor of anthropology. “As per court orders, the victim can then be compensated and the guilty party penalized.”
Corporal punishment is still thought of as an effective way of enforcing discipline in many families and even in teaching circles of Nepal. “A majority of the parents who use or support corporal punishment think of it as a trivial matter whereby they do no more than show their discontent or disapproval,” says Bijaya Bijukachhe, a psychologist and psychotherapist. “But for the children it goes much deeper.”
She says many parents use corporal punishment as they were themselves at the receiving end of it during their childhood. “But one has to keep in mind that children are unaware of this and may interpret corporal punishment as stemming from a lack of love.”
Bringing them in line
Still, the notion that fear of physical or mental punishment can help guide the children on the right path is ingrained in the minds of many parents and teachers. “You have to punish your child,” says Parbati Thapa, 25, who grew up in a family where corporal punishment was the norm. “I do not condone anything extreme but a slap here and there is necessary. What else can you do with an undisciplined child?”
Bijukachhe answers Thapa’s question by suggesting alternative forms of punishment. “You can discipline a child without harming him or her physically or emotionally. Alternative forms of punishment include time-outs and taking away privileges. Let them know about the punishment beforehand so that they are aware of the consequences.”
Make rules and make sure they are followed, Bijukachhe adds. For instance, if you child has homework to do and wants to play instead, do not let him or her play without completing the homework. Instead of causing pain for breaching rules, direct them to follow the rules. “But most importantly,” she stresses, “know that every child is different and reacts differently to each kind of punishment.”
But many parents are still unconvinced. “They say spanking is bad but what do I do if all else fails? Their behavior at times compels you to raise a hand and it usually works,” says Kumari Gurung, 37, a mother of a teenage boy.
Interestingly, to justify capital punishment, Pooja (who declined to give her last name), a primary school teacher in Janakpur, cites Chanakya Neeti. “It is said that children under the age of five need love and endearment, for the next five years they need discipline and control and, finally, for the five years following that, they need a mixture of both.” Seen this way, enforcement of discipline is essential to building a child’s character, she adds.
A law curbing corporal punishment where slaps and spanks have been an integral part of raising children was bound to be contentious
Yet things are not so straightforward. According to researchers at the University of Toronto, children in schools that use corporal punishment perform significantly worse in tasks involving “executive functioning”—psychological processes such as planning, abstract thinking, and delaying gratification—compared to those studying in schools relying on milder disciplinary measures such as time-outs. Those who get corporal punishment when they are children may also develop mental health issues later.
Psychologist Bijukachhe says children tend to hold on to the bitter experiences, which may find release later in their lives. Problems like aggressive parenting, low self-esteem, anxiety disorder, and personality disorders are all associated with physical abuse during childhood. “I have adult clients who have what you may consider successful careers. But with a history of physically and mentally degrading treatment in their childhood, they also have many emotional problems,” she adds.
Again, the introduction of a law curbing corporal punishment in a society where slaps and spanks have traditionally been an integral part of raising children was bound to be contentious. “We have copied a law that was being applied in the western society. But do we have the kind of monitoring system they have? And has there been enough homework to ensure that the society will accept it?” Bijukachhe asks.
In the opinion of Lal Babu Karn, an assistant professor at TU who has taught at various schools and colleges for over 25 years, “What you need is awareness among primary stakeholders, i.e., the children, guardians and teachers, and a mechanism to implement corporal punishment.”
Karn welcomes the new law but he also thinks more awareness is needed for its effective implementation. “You first have to publicize the penalties. Then you promote alternate forms of punishments and even positive reinforcements in dealing with kids.”
Given the manifest lack of interest seen in pushing such progressive policies among our bureaucrats and elected officials, Kharel, the advocate, isn’t optimistic about the new law either. “It may well end up being another bit of fancy legislation enacted just to please our donors and international friends,” he says.