By Christina Gallagher
South Africa this week took a step closer to joining an elite group of countries that have abolished corporal punishment when the National Council of Provinces passed the Children's Amendment Bill, which bans the excessive use of chastisement by parents and caregivers.
While the bill outlaws the use of cruel punishment to children, parents who spank their child will not automatically experience repercussions. It does mean, though, that if the bill is eventually passed, parents will no longer be able to use the defence of "reasonable chastisement" in court.
Carol Bower, former head of Resources Aimed at the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect and now a consultant on children's issues, said the bill curbs a culture of violence in South Africa by protecting the rights of children.
"Of course we are not saying criminalise parents who smack their children, but we need to be able to say to parents that if they need help, it is accessible.
"Smacking a child on the hand is not the issue. It is about children who regularly receive severe hidings. I am quite sure that most people who smack their children have no intention of being violent, but smacking children can escalate to full-blown attacks because parents are unable to cope."
Last year, Childline SA registered nearly
2 000 calls from people, the majority of whom were children, who reported physical abuse. More than
1 000 parents phoned reporting that their children were uncontrollable and that they were having problems disciplining them.
Under the Children's Bill, parents who are reported for administering "inappropriate forms of punishment" to a child will be referred to an early intervention programme, which focuses on parental skills and diverting children from the criminal justice system and children's institutions.
"We are not saying you mustn't be firm, but we must set boundaries and consequences that a child will see. We should be teaching children to make sensible decisions and to do what hurts people the least. When we hit a child, we are teaching them to solve problems with violence," she said.
Previously, when the bill was first submitted for ratification in 2005, some religious groups complained that banning corporal punishment "eroded parental authority".
Bower acknowledged that passing the bill had been an uphill battle, because some people did not fully understand the right of equal protection. "If you want to change the cultural of violence, you have to change it in childhood," she said.
"South Africa has the highest rate of baby rape, community violence, and family murders. We must be able to say that we are doing something right," Bower added.