“We are lacking positive role models when it comes to reducing violence,” explains Jacmel’s school inspector with a frown. “As people grow up being beaten during their own childhood, they consider corporal punishment of children as a normal step of becoming an adult.”
After two days in Jacmel, located in Haiti’s South East Department, I am back in Port-au-Prince with more knowledge on the causes and consequences of violence in school, and less hope that the phenomenon will be quick to end.
Corporal punishment has been officially banned in Haiti since 2001, yet recent studies show that violence against children remains common throughout the country. A survey conducted by the Center for Disease Control in 2012 estimated that one out of four children had experienced sexual abuse [25.7 percent of females and 21.2 percent of males aged 18 to 24 years old] and over half of the children had been a victim of physical violence [60.5 percent of females and 57.2 percent of males aged 18 to 24] prior to their 18th birthday. While half of all children reported violence by a member of the household, one out of five children was abused by an adult representing authority in their community such as a teacher or a police officer. It is sad to imagine that people who should demonstrate trust and safety come to induce fear. In 2012, a situation analysis conducted by UNICEF revealed that 63 percent of children were victims of psychological aggression and 78 percent had suffered corporal punishment.
Even though it is forbidden by law, violence remains an accepted and condoned practice in Haiti. While it is mostly practiced with the intention to groom a child’s performance, there is no doubt that (in the words of my colleague Saintil) “All forms of violence are harmful for children, causing physical and emotional damage. Furthermore, violence committed against children in schools frequently leads to drop-out.” In short, it is not only unacceptable but is also counterproductive as a disciplinary measure.
A new approach is needed in light of persistent violence despite numerous initiatives undertaken by the government and its partners. Individual change must precede social change. To build a positive learning environment, teachers must emotionally and intellectually connect with the idea of positive discipline.
Many already understood the importance of safeguarding every boy and every girl from harm: “The child is a sacred being. There can be no excuse to harming a child,” states Mr Nono, a school inspector in the South East, with conviction. His own children and his students have come to benefit from this nurturing point of view. Last week, he and 35 other inspectors participated in a training aimed at promoting a positive approach to discipline, with the sensitization of key stakeholders as an entry-point.
This UNICEF-supported project kicked-off as a pilot in the communes of Jacmel, Marigot and Cayes-Jacmel, focusing on conflict management and mediation. Mr Nono and his peers will be there to train the teachers, inspiring them to replace anger with empathy and the stick with encouragement. The double challenge will be to inform teachers who believe that physical punishment is the “correct” way to motivate children, and to encourage teachers to adopt new behavior.
The first phase of the project sets the stage for peaceful schools, with the elaboration, adoption and testing of a Code of Conduct, as well as the sensitization of teachers and parents. The second phase will seek to scale-up the fight against violence in school at national level, including a national monitoring system for the prevention of violence, the reinvigoration of ‘School Councils’ comprised of adults and students, and an ongoing coordination mechanism to monitor violence in schools. Yet the road is long, as evidenced by a comment from one inspector: “I fully support the project, but I also know my teachers. Rather than telling them to stop beating their students totally, I will tell them to soften the use of the stick.”
Coming from a country where violence against children in school is a big “NO,” the elimination of violence feels possible, and unavoidable, to me. Every change starts with the first step – and a large step was made in Jacmel last week.
Let’s keep walking!
Cornelia Walther is the Chief of Communication at UNICEF Haiti.