Corporal punishment: A blot on the education system | Sunday Observer

Corporal punishment: A blot on the education system

20 November, 2022

The recent spate of incidents involving teachers and principals punishing schoolchildren and even physically assaulting them has once again renewed the debate on corporal punishment, which is actually not supposed to exist in Sri Lanka.

“Corporal punishment” literally means “bodily punishment” and is often understood to be caning or any other form of physical assault on a student by a teacher. According to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, corporal or physical punishment means any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort.

It mostly involves hitting (smacking, slapping, spanking) children, with the hand or with a whip, stick, belt, shoe, wooden spoon, and others. It can also involve kicking, shaking, or throwing children, scratching, pinching, biting, pulling hair or boxing ears,  burning, scalding, or forced ingestions.

In addition, there are other non-physical forms of punishment that are also cruel and degrading and thus incompatible with the Convention. These include punishment that belittles, humiliates, denigrates, scapegoats, threats, scares or ridicules the child.

Not unique

Corporal punishment is by no means unique to Sri Lanka and one can read plenty of firsthand accounts written by British and other schoolboys on the Internet on the horrors of the cane and physical assaults. In fact, one research suggests that around 30 percent of the global school going population could be subject to these forms of punishment. But sometimes the students do fight back – legally – and win.

On February 12, 2021 in a landmark judgment, the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka condemned the use of corporal punishment of children in schools. The case was brought before the Supreme Court by a 15-year-old student and his parents against teachers and authorities of a public school.

The student had been slapped across the face by one of the teachers which resulted in a permanent hearing impairment. The complainants argued that the teacher violated article 11 of the Sri Lankan Constitution which prohibits torture, cruel, inhuman degrading treatment or punishment. 

The Court found that the use of corporal punishment by the teacher violated the Constitution. It ordered compensation to be paid to the student by the teacher and the State. Using clear and unequivocal arguments against corporal punishment of children, the Supreme Court stated: While Corporal Punishment does not amount to torture in itself in the instant case, the practice of infliction of physical or mental punishment which disregards the inherent dignity of a child amounts to inhuman or degrading punishment.” 

Five years of accelerated action

An Education Ministry Circular of 2016 reportedly prohibits the use of corporal punishment in government schools, but it does not apply to all schools and has not been confirmed in legislation. Since 2017, Sri Lanka has been a Pathfinding country with the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children. This commits the Government to three to five years of accelerated action towards the achievement of Target 16.2 of the Sustainable Development Goals. In reporting to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2017, the Government of Sri Lanka committed to reforming its laws to prohibit corporal punishment in all settings.

“Spare the rod and spoil the child” is an old saying which denotes that children should be punished in one way or the other for any “offences” they may commit at home or school. This saying implies that children who go unpunished when they commit a wrong act could turn into adults who will be troublesome for society. However, this axiom completely ignores the point of view of the child – he or she may suffer trauma stemming from these episodes well into adulthood. They might not turn out to be good citizens after all thanks to the cane.

Indeed, for most children corporal punishment begins at home, where overly strict parents wield the rod even for a slight mistake of a child. There have been many instances where children have been brutally assaulted at home and some children have even died as a result. The school could be even worse for some children who are frequently targeted by teachers and principals for punishment for any number of “offences” from not doing homework to not wearing the uniform properly.

I myself had been at the receiving end of the cane many times in school, though mercifully not at home. Now I cannot remember most of the “offences” I may have committed, except that on two occasions the whole class got punished because no one came forward to “betray” the original offender. I am told that this used to be a fairly common experience for many who had attended boys’ schools. Corporal punishment most often occurs in boys’ schools and only rarely in girls schools, though many who hailed from mixed schools told me that only the boys in such schools got the cane. Even in exclusively boys’ schools, A/L students are very rarely punished with the cane and only the younger students usually get this form of punishment.

Total misfits

In hindsight, I cannot really say whether I became a better person as a result of getting the cane. Instead, I personally know of many instances where the children subjected to such punishments became even more aggressive, becoming total misfits in society. In my case (and those of many others), I believe that a stern warning or other punishments such as kneeling (another form of physical punishment, but much more bearable) or some sort of “community service” like sweeping the classroom/school compound could have sufficed instead of the cane. At the end of the day, gentle advice from a teacher could go a long way towards moulding a better citizen.

The debate on corporal punishment has been renewed in Sri Lanka due to a plethora of recent incidents, the most prominent among which was the assault on a group of very young students by a principal over a charge of theft and the subsequent “electric shock treatment” administered to the children by the local Police station at the behest of the principal. Granted, this is an extreme case, but the episode perfectly illustrates the depravity of certain teachers and principals who seem to derive some sort of sadistic pleasure by subjecting their charges to harsh punishments that are not even given to adults.

In another instance, a teacher had assaulted a student for not coming to his private tuition class held after school hours. Last year, a student in a leading school in Veyangoda was hit with a drain pipe by a teacher, resulting in injuries to the student. In another case, a teacher had threatened a student for reporting an act of corporal punishment.

There are other instances of teachers attacking students physically and even sexually. These are all abhorrent behaviour and practices which our education authorities must not tolerate under any circumstances. Yet it is only rarely that such teachers are sanctioned or punished via the legal system. One such case has been highlighted in this article.

The United Nations (UN) has highlighted the need to end all forms of corporal punishment at home and school. As per the UN, the major objectives in ending corporal punishment are: all Governments should act to prohibit and eliminate corporal punishment by 2030, organisations and individuals across all contexts and sectors should unite to call for urgent action to end corporal punishment, commit to taking steps towards this goal, and hear the voices of children and their right to equal protection from violence.

Stern measures

The Chief of Child Protection, UNICEF, Miranda Armstrong said that hitting or punishing children will not change anything and will affect the child in a negative way. This is a view unequivocally shared by many child psychologists. Paradoxically, many countries have taken stern measures regarding violence against women but such laws have been not been introduced or implemented to end corporal punishment in schools, even against female students.     

Corporal punishment leads to the injury, disability, and death of thousands of children each year worldwide. Its widespread social acceptance means that a level of violence at home and school in raising children is normalised, entrenching children’s low status in society and paving the way for other forms of violence and mistreatment. Corporal punishment affects children regardless of their age, race, sex, and social background.

But it is often the most vulnerable, differently abled, young, and socially marginalised children who experience higher levels of violent punishment. This has caused many children to quit schooling altogether before even completing the higher grades and has also mentally affected them. Unfortunately, a lot of incidents of corporal punishment go unreported because most students grin and bear, thinking that it is a normal part of school life.  


The Government, education authorities and the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) must play a bigger role in eliminating the scourge of corporal punishment. There is already a NCPA hotline for reporting any form of child abuse and invariably, corporal punishment too can be treated the same way.

Thus the hotline should accommodate such complaints too from students and their parents.

Teachers must also be made aware of alternative means of “correcting” students without necessarily resorting to corporal punishment. The Education Ministry, together with lawyers, educationists and child psychologists should conduct awareness programmes for teachers in this regard.

It has been shown that suspending classes even for a few days is a good deterrent against unruly behaviour of students in and off the classroom. As mentioned earlier, community service is another viable alternative. Moreover, there are no mechanisms here for counselling students who may suffer from the trauma induced by corporal punishment. Such mechanisms should be established without delay. All possible steps must be taken to end the practice of corporal punishment in our schools.