The chicken and the egg: The link between corporal punishment and gender-based violence

A student from the Wits drama school lays out a sign on pairs of shoes to raise awareness at the issue of gender based violence at Wits University, Johannesburg in 2016. The shoes are there as part of the performance asking viewers to live in someone else shoes. The performance aimed to highlight the high numbers of rapes in South Africa. EPA

As we intensify the annual 16 Days of Activism campaign, it is worth reflecting on the link between corporal punishment and gender-based violence. Children exposed to violence at home learn early and powerful lessons about the use of violence to solve their problems and dominate others. And these children often grow up to be intimate partners who navigate relationships in the belief that violence is an option. This is something that we need to acknowledge, and address, in South Africa.

I remember in my school in the 1980’s that “six of the best” was the ultimate threat, and if we stepped out of line our Principal would cane us six times in a row. This was considered normal back then. Fortunately, corporal punishment has long since been banned in schools (although the practice persists in many places). But, until recently, it was still permitted in homes across South Africa.

Then, in September 2019, the Constitutional Court ruled that parents could no longer use “reasonable chastisement” as a defence in cases of violence against children. In other words, corporal punishment was banned in the home.

As a society, we tend to show two incongruous reactions to violence in our homes. On the one hand, many view physical violence against children as an effective means of discipline. On the other, we continue to be outraged by high-profile cases of gender-based violence in what we see as a ‘war against women’. The link between the two – corporal punishment and gender-based violence – is seldom, if ever, made explicit in the media. But the ConCourt ruling is a victory for child rights, and a milestone in the campaign to end gender-based violence.

Children in South Africa are exposed to excessive levels of violence, in their communities, schools and homes. And there is ample evidence that this is harmful to their development, affecting a range of health and social outcomes. It also perpetuates the cycle of violence, abuse and trauma. Not only is corporal punishment and physical abuse more prevalent in homes where domestic violence is tolerated; but children who are exposed to domestic violence are more likely to be either perpetrators or victims of violence themselves. Last year, 1,014 children were murdered and 736 children were charged with murder. And this was a marked increase in both instances from previous years.

Evidence also shows that men’s use of violence and control towards their partner, often extends into them disciplining their children through physical punishment; and that women who experience violence at the hands of their partner are more likely to use physical punishment to discipline their children.

What makes the issue of corporal punishment particularly difficult, is that many parents struggle with the dichotomy of discipline versus abuse. They believe that discipline is delivered by parents who love and care for their children, while abuse is inflicted by cruel and uncaring parents. But research shows that this is not true, and that in most cases physical punishment is physical abuse in intent, form and effect.

Many of us who experienced physical punishment as children also tend to view it as an appropriate response to parent-child conflict today. Much in the same way that we used to justify punishments at school, like “six of the best”. The gender and social norms we hold as a society also perpetuate gender-based violence, with men often seen as having the authority to discipline and control women and children. In holding these beliefs, we normalise and legitimise things that have no place in our society.

Aside from the obvious consequences of violence against women and children, there are also economic and social implications. Save the Children’s Violence Unwrapped study estimated that in 2015 alone, violence against children cost South Africa R238 billion, or nearly 5% of the country’s GDP. KPMG’s Too Costly to Ignore study estimated that gender-based violence costs South Africa between R28.4 billion and R42.4 billion per year, or between 0.9% and 1.3% of annual GDP.

What we need now is to tackle violence against women and children collaboratively and through joint programming. In our fight to stop the intergenerational cycle of violence, Save the Children is advocating for positive parenting. This is a comprehensive approach that uses discipline to teach rather than punish and, as a result, helps children succeed and thrive in life, becoming healthy, well-adapted adults. Positive parenting is fair, loving, caring and consistent. It is age appropriate and provides warmth and structure. And critically, it encourages parents to learn how to control and manage their own emotions and emphasizes the importance of men as caregivers. It is an approach that I use in my own home, and that I have seen work in families across the country.

This week, Save the Children South Africa (SCSA) will hold the first roundtable on positive parenting in Parliament. It is an opportunity to educate Members of Parliament and their staff on positive parenting, and for children to address the group directly on their own experiences of corporal punishment. SCSA is also working with the Department of Social Development to roll out positive parenting training to caregivers around the country, in recognition of the urgent need for effective, positive parenting tools.

We intend to scale up this work in 2020, in partnership with government and civil society. Because this is how we stop the cycle of violence in our society, by bringing up children in an environment of love and respect, in which violence of any kind has no place.


Steve Miller is the CEO of Save the Children South Africa.