Trinidad and Tobago-based UN rep: Don't hit children

UN resident co-ordinator Joanna Kazana - Photo courtesy UN TT
UN resident co-ordinator Joanna Kazana - Photo courtesy UN TT

UN resident co-ordinator Joanna Kazana has said instead of hitting children, adults must find other ways to enforce discipline.

She spoke with Newsday after the Ministry of Planning launched a report on the life conditions of women and children in Trinidad and Tobago, the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) Report 2022, at the Radisson Hotel, Port of Spain, on January 26.

The report said, "In the month prior to the survey, 67 out of every 100 children aged one-14 years in TT experienced some form of violent discipline. Of those children, two of them experienced severe physical punishment."

The report gave a breakdown of the 67 per cent.

Of these, some 61 per cent of children faced psychological aggression, 40 per cent endured physical punishment and two per cent severe physical punishment.

The report said physical punishment was "shaking, hitting or slapping a child on the hand/arm/leg, hitting on the bottom or elsewhere on the body with a hard object, spanking or hitting on the bottom with a bare hand, hitting or slapping on the face, head or ears, and hitting or beating hard and repeatedly."

Severe physical punishment was: "Hitting or slapping a child on the face, head or ears, and hitting or beating a child hard and repeatedly."

Psychological aggression was "shouting, yelling or screaming at a child, as well as calling a child offensive names such as ‘dumb’ or ‘lazy.’"

Initially, Newsday had asked about factors encouraging TT's high murder rate and whether such influences were measurable.

Kazana said, "There are very specific measures of the level of violence."

She said the main indicator of a society's level of violence was its homicide rate – the number of murders per 100,000 population.

"This indicator is very high for TT. It is at the level of 30/100,000, according to 2021 statistics."

She then highlighted the report's details of how many children were experiencing violence at home.

"This is also a likelihood of young people and then young adults going on to demonstrate aggressive behaviour in solving disputes."

Kazana said there was a very high correlation between having been a victim of abuse and becoming a perpetrator of abuse.

"There is data about grown-up men, all the indicators, what are the causes for them becoming aggressive or using physical violence to resolve issues at the grown-up age."

She noted the report showing 67 per cent of children experiencing physical (or mental abuse) in TT was "very high."

Slightly more boys were physically disciplined than girls, the report also showed.

Asked about her views on the physical disciplining of children by violence, Kazana said, "The view we'd collectively like to express: it doesn't work."

Unicef planning specialist Patrice Bosso interjected to remark on the 67 per cent figure.

"It shows most of the adults think it is normal, for child-rearing, to apply physical violence.

"We have to ask the right questions. Society thinks it is normal."

Bosso hoped this quantitative data could be followed up by qualitative research entailing talks with TT nationals to find out what was feeding an apparent widespread acceptance of using violence to discipline children, factors such as tradition or collective thinking.

"I'd say let's look at the practice, but also the attitude, to have a better analysis."

Kazana said, "Maybe I could suggest my personal view on this.

"Using physical force against children is just an abuse of parental power. We are so much stronger than the little children and we are so much more in control of their physical well-being.

"It is a physical sort of violation of their integrity or their autonomy. It is also a mental or emotional violation of their well-being."

She said physical punishment merely perpetuates the given conflict/confrontation.

"It does not bring any positive outcome.

"It stays with the young person, in their mind, in their heart, in their physical well-being, forever."

Kazana said physical punishment was simply wrong.

"Then the young person who grows up with the experience of being physically disciplined and often time abused by very, very strong discipline, is going to repeat the same behaviour in their grown-up life – not only in the family, not only against their intimate partner but against their children."

Children who are physically disciplined will display frustration and aggression at school and in the community, she said, instead of finding conciliatory ways to resolve problems and discussing issues to see the other person's point of view.

Kazana said parental authority and respect were very important.

"Children need to be disciplined. Children need to know the boundaries. They are still growing and they don't know everything better than the parents.

"Parents need to have authority over the children because they are responsible for the children, but 'physical authority' is just not working. It is not a very effective way of creating a constructive relationship with the children."

Unicef social policy manager Celine Felix agreed with Kazana.

"Establishing boundaries does not mean being violent against the children.

"The 67 per cent figure is really showing it is a practice and we must find ways to address it."

She said different ways should be used to address this, such as sending messages that violence is not a solution, via the family or through the schools.

"There are different policies and programmes that need to be put in place to question the practice and slowly change the practice."

"Violence against children is violating one of the key rights of the child and we need to find solutions against it."

Vulnerable families should be equipped with different tools and opportunities as a positive alternative, Felix urged.

"Sometimes they find themselves in such a situation where they think it is the only way.

"But also working with the education system, with the community, and other different levels."

The report said, "Only 23 per cent of children under age 15 were disciplined in a non-violent way."

Generally, violent discipline was almost equally commonplace regardless of area, wealth, education level of the mother or the sex of the child.

"For physical disciplining, the highest incidence was found for children aged three-four years (61 per cent) and declined with age.

"However, the peak years for psychological aggression (abuse) was found among children aged five- nine years (65 per cent, and remained high even among children aged ten-14 years (61 per cent)."

The report unearthed a seeming disparity among respondents.

"Despite the incidence of violent discipline found among the children, less than one in five mothers/caretakers (18 per cent) in TT believed that physical punishment is necessary.

"Mothers/caretakers with a lower secondary education (24 per cent) had the most accepting attitude towards physical punishment being necessary to raise or educate children."

The Children's Authority's annual report for 2019 said parents and family were the most important influences in a child's life.

"However, our data highlights that the family is frequently a source of violence, abuse and even exploitation." The report lamented cases where supposed protectors were in fact, abusers.

"Research has shown that failure to protect children undermines national development, leading to increased vulnerability and negative effects that continue beyond childhood into the individual's adult life."

The Children Act 2012 prevents anyone except a parent from hitting a child and says parents must be reasonable in this matter.

The act (section four) says, "Nothing in this section shall be construed as affecting the right of any parent, teacher or other person having the lawful control or charge of a child to administer reasonable punishment to such a child.

"Reasonable punishment referred to in relation to any person other than a parent or guardian, shall not include corporal punishment."

The Children's Authority explained this in its document, Teachers Guide to the New Child Protection Legislation.

"This means that while certain persons dealing with a child, for example, a teacher, counsellor etc can administer reasonable punishment, they cannot administer corporal punishment.

"Only a parent or guardian can administer corporal punishment. Note, however, that even in those circumstances it must be reasonable punishment."

This point was also made in the Ministry of Education's code of conduct.

"Consequences specifically forbidden are corporal punishment (and) the use of evaluation procedures as a disciplinary procedure with regards to arbitrarily assigning a test to an individual or class that is behaving inappropriately."

The code suggests alternatives to handle pupil indiscipline. These start with school/student conferences and then parent/guardian contact, through to referring to law enforcement, community service, and mediation.


"Trinidad and Tobago-based UN rep: Don’t hit children"

More in this section