Building Indonesia for and With Children: The Importance of Prohibiting Corporal Punishment

11/07/2016 15:28 | Updated 11 July 2016

In the past week, social media in Indonesia has been buzzing with news of a student who filed a criminal lawsuit against his teacher for pinching him. The lawsuit itself has been withdrawn and the dispute resolution was achieved through 'a settlement in familial manner'. There were harmful consequences that demonstrate an aggressive and paternalistic society: the boy was turned into a social media meme, labelling him as sissy, weak and spoiled and local schools refused to admit him as a new student. Many Indonesians normalise the act as a justified disciplinary tool - demonstrating a near universal social acceptance of corporal punishment in childrearing and a culture where physical punishment is considered as fabric of society.

In recent months, we have seen many cases on child abuse in debates on child protection in the media -- although the comments I have heard so far come from adults rather than from the children themselves. While many may consider pinching as a trivial act, I am writing this to argue that in a wider social context (without analysing the detailed facts of the legal case in particular), eliminating corporal punishment is a crucial step in reducing child abuse and in recognising that children are full human beings with inherent rights to protection, dignity and integrity. My goal is not to prosecute and put teachers in prison (especially considering the guiding principles of best interest of the child), but to prevent further violence against children. It is also to emphasise the need to see children as 'beings rather than becomings': that they have a place and a value equal to that of adults and that we need to build a violence-free Indonesia for the younger generation to develop in.

Pinching as a Corporal Punishment

Indonesia is a party to the UNCRC. Article 19 of the UNCRC talks about the protection of children from abuse and 'all forms of physical or mental violence'. Pinching itself is a form of the old habit of corporal punishment. GRC GC8 defines corporal punishment as "any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light... it can also involve ... pinching...". The Committee on the Rights of the Child has stated that corporal punishment is incompatible with the Convention and that it should be prohibited. Legal experts such as Freeman and Saunders agree that corporal punishment cannot be morally justified.

At a global level, over 49 States have prohibited all corporal punishment of children. Sweden was the first nation to abolish corporal punishment through a legal reform in 1979. While protests initially rose, as time passes there is a growing public acceptance of the harm of corporal punishment. France recently banned corporal punishment in familial settings and 29 Member States of the Council of Europe have adopted full prohibition. While Indonesia has laws to protect children such as Law Number 35 Year 2014 on Child Protection that prohibits violence in schools, it is said that provisions against violence and abuse in Indonesian laws are not interpreted as prohibiting all forms of corporal punishment.

The Strong Ties between Corporal Punishment and Child Abuse and the Importance of
Respecting and Promoting Children's Rights

There is a strong tie between corporal punishment and abuse. Freeman said, "Much child abuse, we know, is physical punishment gone awfully wrong". A meta-analytic and theoretical review on corporal punishment and associated child behaviour concluded that corporal punishment causes negative child outcomes such as increased aggression, lack of moral internalisation, delinquent and antisocial behaviour, poor mental health, and increased potential to be a victim of physical abuse. Children who develop in a healthy environment are less likely to commit violent acts and thus preventing violence in one generation would also prevent the likelihood in the next (we see often the historical and on-going tolerance in the violent pattern of ospek (school orientation programmes) in Indonesia). Studies also show that physical punishment may reduce the brain's grey matter, an integral part of the central nervous system that is associated with intelligence and learning abilities, thus slowing cognitive development and academic achievement -- we need to implement effective alternatives to manage children's undesirable behaviour.

The government should create a violence-free environment for children to develop as socially responsible and contributing citizens in the Indonesian society. An implementation of the UNCRC through domestic laws and comprehensive social initiatives are needed to achieve this. Last year, The Minister of Education and Cultural Affairs released Regulation No. 82/2015 that prohibits violence in schools and regulates sanction for students by oral and written notice and educational interventions through counselling. In addition to enforce this regulation, they should interpret in domestic laws that corporal punishment is a form of violence, no matter how light, and not just the ones causing serious harm and injury. Furthermore, we need more education on the harm of corporal punishment, educational interventions for parents and teachers on positive parenting and most importantly, give room for children to speak their own minds and voices. Scientific research and evidence as well as international laws should be translated into guidance to culturally shift and evolve public attitudes and beliefs toward corporal punishment and unequal power in adult-child relationships.

As concerns about children's welfare become more prominent in human rights law, we need to recognise and empower children and their rights. An Asia Foundation survey reported a lack of Indonesian citizens' knowledge of fundamental rights - 56 per cent of respondents were unable to name a single fundamental human right. We need to teach children their rights to raise awareness of their right and to empower them to speak up against child abuse. If we want to build Indonesia for and with children, we need to create a nurturing and empowering environment that will be conducive their fully development. Let us make schools a space for positive development where learning is enjoyable and violence, in any form, is not tolerated.


The author would like to thank Feri Sahputra, researcher at the Centre on Child Protection University of Indonesia, for his input and time to review this article and Tom Gorringe for language correction.