The Cruel, School Days
After years of children falling victim to corporal punishment at schools, a High Court ruling asks why it should not be considered a violation of human rights
Kajalie Shehreen Islam
One cold, winter morning in the mid-1980s, Javed Ali (not his real name) reached school, as usual, 10 minutes late. It was a regular problem that could not be avoided due to the location of his home and the transport options available. In fact, Javed and his siblings had, at the beginning of the year, obtained formal permission from the school to be slightly late. That day when he reached his Class 7 homeroom, however, the class teacher would not let him in. Instead, he approached Javed at the door of the classroom, ruler in hand. For 10 minutes, he hit the boy hard from head to toe with the edge of the ruler, concentrating especially on his finger joints. The ruler sliced through the boy's tender body already half-frozen by the biting cold, but even after the beating was over, he could not attend to his wounds. For the duration of the class, Javed was made to stand on one leg outside the door of the room, with his own classmates as well as students and teachers from other classes, looking on.
To this day, Javed Ali does not know the reason for that morning's brutality. It was not the first time he was late, and he even had permission. Perhaps the teacher was having a bad day, he reflects now. At the time, however, all he felt was shame, anger and most of all, pain.
“I wanted to cry but I stopped myself,” says Ali. “The pain was excruciating. I was angry with myself and even my family because I knew it was wrong to be late, but we didn't have a choice. And I felt utterly humiliated.”
Having occurred towards the start of that school year, the incident left the 12-year-old depressed and traumatised, always fearing a recurrence of the violence by the same teacher.
Though that particular morning was exceptionally painful, it was not the first or the last time Ali was physically abused by his schoolteachers. “It was common,” he recalls. “For being late, for not knowing the answers in class, for doing badly in exams. Some of my friends were beaten until they bled.”
Some of the teachers even had innovative ways of doing it, recalls the now 38-year-old. “One of our teachers had made his own beating stick from the branch of a henna tree which he painted with red stripes. It was half my (5'10”) height today.” Another teacher would put a wooden pencil between the joints of two fingers and twist them around it, pressing really hard. Some teachers would pull hard on the sideburns of students. Others would twist the student's ear or, in the case of two delinquents, make them twist each other's ears.
“I don't believe physical punishment was the way to deal with the children's problems,” says Javed Ali. As it turned out, because the cause of lateness was unavoidable under the circumstances, the beating did not help him to come to school any earlier after that. What it did leave him with, however, was a fear of school and teachers. “We had nice teachers too, some of them like parents and friends. But the cruel punishments have left a dark shadow on the school experience,” he says.
In 2005, the death of 13-year-old Dipu made news headlines. After having missed the roll call in class, Dipu had approached the teacher to take down his attendance. He was beaten so severely and frightened so badly that he contracted a fever from which he never recovered. While only some of the worst cases make the news, hundreds of others occur every day throughout the country.
Last week, following the death of a 10-year-old boy who allegedly committed suicide after being beaten by a schoolteacher earlier that day, lawyers from Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK) and Bangladesh Legal Aid Services (BLAST) filed a petition challenging the “systematic failure” of the Government to take action against cases of corporal punishment at schools. The petitioners cited several cases of children being beaten, caned and chained, to the point of their requiring hospitalisation.
“While cruel, degrading and humiliating punishment under any circumstances is a breach of fundamental rights according to the Constitution,” says Barrister Sara Hossain, an advocate of the Supreme Court, “there are specific laws for educational institutions which prohibit 'cruel punishment'. There is no clear definition, however, of what entails 'cruel'.”
The punishments meted out in schools throughout the country, however, are obvious violations of human rights, causing physical and psychological injury to children. The High Court has responded in the case by directing the government to show cause why such violence should not be considered a breach of human rights and why it should not direct the government to conduct teachers' training, regular inspection and monitoring of schools and dissemination of information against corporal punishment at schools. It has also issued interim orders to the Ministry and Boards of Education to carry out investigations, prosecutions and punishments in such cases in the meantime, as well as to instruct primary and secondary educational institutions to prohibit corporal punishment. The case will be heard again in the first week of August.
As bad as the physical pain of such punishments, is the psychological trauma and humiliation caused to children barely old enough to know right from wrong. Ironically, not only do such punishments often fail to get the message through to children, but they also create a fear and even defiance towards teachers, schools and towards authority in general.
A survivor of institutional brutality, Javed Ali today leads a healthy, successful life. But remnants of fear from the traumatic school days leave his memories of some of the best years of his life very-bitterly sweet.
(R) thedailystar.net 2010