News reports yesterday suggest that the Ministry of Education will soon pronounce on the issue of the flogging of ten Queen’s College students by a senior teacher which occurred on May 16. The matter had attracted wide publicity and a report by the Board of Governors containing recommendations has been submitted to the Ministry of Education which is being reviewed. It is expected that the Ministry’s focus will be on the incident at Queen’s College and not on the broader question of corporal punishment in schools. Yet there are few issues that attract more controversy and others consider of less compelling urgency.

The Ministry of Education approves the flogging of children in schools. The Manual of Guidelines for the Maintenance and Discipline in Schools, defines the reasons for which it can be used as follows: fighting, use of indecent language, gross insubordination, display of unacceptable behaviours, or in grave circumstances. These “offences” are not further defined. It might well be considered that “unacceptable behaviours” and “grave circumstances” give too latitude or discretion in making determinations as to what they encompass. It is not known if these Guidelines have been further defined or developed as they were promulgated since 2002. But it is to be noted that it is a detailed and extensive document which provides a role for the home and the community in formulating and implementing a Code of Conduct and Disciplinary Policy.

In the debates leading up to the attempt to enact the draft Education Bill in 2014, the current Education Act having been enacted in 1877, a widespread debate broke out on corporal punishment of children. It turned out that strongly held opinions in favour of corporal punishment were expressed. Some Christian and other religious groups were vociferous in their support. The Education Bill does not provide for corporal punishment but states that the principal and staff of a public school shall ensure that order and discipline prevail in accordance with the Manual. It is presumably the same Manual referred to above which means that corporal punishment would have been indirectly retained by the Bill. But for a reason that I have not been able to discern, the Bill was not proceeded with after its First Reading in 2014.

The non-governmental organization, ChildLink Inc., as reported on May 11, condemned the flogging of the ten Queen’s College students and urged the Ministry of Education to abolish corporate punishment in its entirety. “The flogging of children has no place in a modern, progressive society like Guyana and the Ministry of Education should strongly consider taking a more pro-active approach to have this dehumanizing behaviour removed from its policy.” ChildLink said that by condemning and actively working to eradicate corporal punishment, Guyana could create a safer and more nurturing environment for its youngest citizens where their rights are respected and their potential is allowed to flourish. ChildLink said that flogging children is a violation of children’s rights.  

Article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child provides that: “The state must do all it can to protect children from violence, abuse, neglect, bad treatment or exploitation by their parents or anyone else who looks after them.” Article 38B of the Constitution provides that “the best interests of the child shall be the primary consideration in all matters concerning children” undertaken by public institutions. Among the tasks of the Rights of the Child Commission provided for by Article 212V of the Constitution are: promote the rights and interests of children; ensure that the rights of children are taken into account by public bodies; monitor compliance by the Government with international instruments to which it has acceded; monitor, evaluate and make recommendations on policies in order to promote rights of the child. The Rights of the Child Commission has been missing in this debate. There is no doubt that Guyana is in violation of its international and constitutional obligations in approbating the flogging of children in schools.

The case of Christian Education of South Africa v Minister of Education was heard by the Constitutional Court of South Africa in 2000. The decision given by Justice Albie Sachs, a former African National Congress executive member, who visited Guyana in 1998 and gave several public lectures. The South African Schools Act had prohibited corporal punishment in schools. The question was whether the provision violated the rights of parents of children in independent schools who, in line with their religious convictions, had consented to its use. The issues in the case are not directly relevant to the matter in Guyana, even though some of the opposition to the abolition of corporate punishment is driven by religious sentiments. But the court answered in the negative and Justice Sachs said: “It should be noted that these rights to be violent-free [as provided for by the South African Constitution] are additional to and not substitutes for thr right not to be punished in a cruel, inhuman and degrading way.” Justice Sachs said that the State was obliged to respect and promote those rights. Accordingly, it must take appropriate steps to reduce violence in public and private life. “Coupled with its special duty towards children, this obligation represents a powerful requirement on the state to act.”     

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