Spanking, hitting, caning. Illegal in Sweden, and in 43 other countries as of this week. It has been 35 years since Sweden became the first country in the world to prohibit corporal punishment of children. Even though almost all countries worldwide have ratified the UN adopted Convention on the Rights of the Child, which includes protecting children from physical violence, still only a relative few have put legal measures in place against corporal punishment. Ninety per cent of the world’s children live in countries where physical violence against them is still legal.
There has been recent momentum towards legislation, with Brazil, San Marino and Estonia implementing legal bans within just the last few months. But why the overall slow legal development?
Cultural norms, privacy issues, and religious beliefs all play into the historical acceptance of physical discipline. It is often said that confusion on definitions and “acceptable levels”, and an unwillingness for parents to consider their behavior abusive, also contribute to the difficulty in swaying public opinion in many countries.
However, for the growing number of countries that have legislated against corporal punishment, the definitions are quite clear. “It is a basic human right to grow up free from violence of any kind,” says Emma Kristensson of BRIS (Children’s Rights in Society). “Even lesser forms of aggression and violence have long term effects on you as an individual.” In other words, the acceptable level of physical discipline is quite simply, none.
“There is a summary of 150 international studies that we refer to, and all of them show that the consequences of corporal punishment are very negative,” says Eva Bellander, Senior Advisor of Child Protection at Save the Children Sweden. “The are no studies showing the benefits of corporal punishment, at all.”
And then there are questions about effective alternatives. Bellander continues, “We advocate Positive Discipline techniques based on respect and responsibility and which take into account principles of child development. There are many alternatives.”
To those countries hesitant to challenge what is often seen as parental rights and authority, Kristensson responds, ”It’s crucial to move away from the discussion of parental rights. If you instead look at the individual child’s rights, and their inherent right to live a life free from violence, you really change perceptions of society as a whole.”
With human rights issues at the top of the social and political agenda in Sweden in the 1970s, children’s individual rights also came into focus. An estimated 50 per cent of Swedish parents in the early 1970s were still using physical punishment to discipline their children. Dovetailing with changing societal beliefs at the time, a massive awareness raising campaign, along with the legislation against corporal punishment, contributed to the long-standing support against corporal punishment. Even so, change has taken time.
“It has taken 35 years to reach the point we are at today in Sweden, but we still have an estimated 2-3 per cent of parents using physical means to discipline. We still have more to do,” adds Bellander. “Legislation alone is not enough, you must have awareness and public support.”
And the work still to be done goes beyond the issue of corporal punishment. Sweden has recently committed to signing the entire Convention of the Rights of the Child into law. The country has received criticism in the past by UNICEF and other agencies, which see the complete legal backing as important for enforcing rights for all children in Sweden, in particular, children of immigrant families. (The Swedish Institute)