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January 21, 2019

Corporal punishment or physical, mental violence?

Last week we saw a parent’s worst nightmare captured on our television screens for the whole nation to see. A family’s only son killed in an institution where parents entrust absolute care of their children. Martin Muchiri’s life was ended prematurely by a teacher who sought to discipline him for noise making by using excessive force.

Teachers spend approximately 10 hours a day for a week with our children. In boarding school, there are over 15 hours of interaction a day. Parents have at most six hours to interact with their children. Most parents have become props in their children’s lives while teachers become the main actors. What parents may not realise is that once you hand over your son or daughter to the school, they are no longer yours alone. Part of the parental responsibilities shifts to the teachers who become their second parents. These individuals may either build them up and care for them or terrorise them, abuse them and lower their self-esteem in the name of instilling discipline and educating them. The methods used in raising your child by their “second parents” are vital.

In Kenya, corporal punishment is outlawed! Article 29 of the constitution states that every person has the right to freedom and security of the person, which includes the right not to be subjected to any form of violence from either public or private sources; a right not to be subjected to torture in any manner, whether physical or psychological, and a right not to be subjected to corporal punishment.

Article 53 also protects a child from abuse, all forms of violence, and inhuman treatment and punishment and places a duty on parents to care for and protect their children from such abuse.

The Children's Act 2001 categorises corporal punishment as a form of violence against children and states that a child shall be entitled to protection from physical and psychological abuse. Moreover, Section 23 defines parental responsibility to include a  duty to protect the child from neglect, discrimination and abuse. This means that parents have a role in stopping this senseless beating that is meted against their children. How often has your child told you outrageous stories of abuse in their school and you shrugged it off praying that they would toughen up and prepare for the real world? There is a fine line between corporal punishment and discipline. This line is so illusive that it tends to make the whole debate elusive.

Corporal punishment as defined by the UN committee on the rights of the Child involves a deliberate act that inflicts pain or physical discomfort in order to punish someone. Corporal punishment can include hitting with a hand or an object such as a cane, belt or ruler. Corporal punishment may involve slapping, kicking, punching, shaking, pinching or pulling hair; forcing someone to stand in a physically uncomfortable, emotionally humiliating or undignified position; denying or restricting someone’s use of the toilet; or forcing someone to do excessive exercise. It may also involve other non-physical forms of punishment that are also cruel and degrading and thus incompatible with the convention. These include, for example, punishment which belittles, humiliates, denigrates, scapegoats, threatens, scares or ridicules the child. Corporal punishment is inherently degrading.


Disciplining a child on the other hand means instilling ways of behaving that show respect and responsibility. The goal is for the student to develop self-discipline through their own efforts rather than through the efforts of another by means of monitoring, threats, fear, and force.

In Martin Muchiri’s case, the school must be held vicariously liable for his death as employers. Criminal actions against the particular teacher are not the only redress nor are they sufficient. The school should compensate the parents for the life of their son. The Basic education Act under section 4 states that basic education shall be guided by the values and principles of eliminating corporal punishment or any form of cruel and inhuman treatment or torture.

The state has undeniably failed in its duty to implement the laws it has put in place and has failed to protect these vulnerable children. The Convention on the Rights of the Child under Article 28 obligates State Parties to take all appropriate measures to ensure that school discipline is administered in a manner consistent with the child's human dignity and in conformity with the convention.

The Ministry of Education and the Teachers Service Commission should also give an account as to why they failed to implement provisions that are so clearly spelled out in law. Their failure to implement these laws makes them accessories to this violence.

Research has shown that corporal punishment is effective in achieving immediate child compliance but in the end the question is “Do you have to make a child suffer to get them to behave?” The goal of disciplining a child is to have them regulate themselves over time. And in that, corporal punishment in schools fails.

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