Betty Ann Blaine | Corporal punishment and the culture of child abuse - How do we fix it?
The two most recently publicised cases of children being cruelly beaten by their mothers have understandably drawn widespread condemnation and have once again brought to the fore the issue of corporal punishment and the culture of child abuse in Jamaica.
In fact, one of the cases in which the mother was filmed beating her teenage daughter with a machete drew the attention and ire of Prime Minister Andrew Holness, who responded with a call for legislation for corporal punishment in schools and in homes.
But, as a 'born and bred' son of the soil, Mr Holness should know that the problem of child physical abuse is much deeper and more complex than words, warnings, and even legislation can address.
It seems to me that in order to effectively tackle and solve the current crisis of child physical abuse, one has to place the issue within the broader context of the general culture of violence that has been a feature of Jamaican society since slavery and colonialism.
The cruelty and inhumanity associated with Jamaican slave society, including the horrendous acts of brutality against children and against the institution of the family, has to this day never been formally or adequately resolved. That legacy of violence would become enmeshed and ingrained in the psyche and behaviour of so-called freed slave society compounded by structural and systemic levels of race and class discrimination and differentiation.
BEATING AS DISCIPLINE
I experienced that post-slavery culture of violence in my own family. My grandfather was a cruel man who beat my mother and her siblings mercilessly all the time. My own mother learned the behaviour and raised five of us with her belt permanently in hand. It was her definition of 'home training'.
The phenomenon of 'home training' and the cliche, 'don't spare the rod and spoil the child' is a real and continuing aspect of Jamaican life. Any attempt to legislate corporal punishment will no doubt have to contend with this age-old practice deeply stitched into the cultural fabric of the nation. How the state intends to distinguish between 'home training' and abuse as it contemplates legal action will be challenging at best.
At the root of the problem of child physical abuse in Jamaica is the erosion and dysfunction of family life. The majority of the country's children live in single-parent homes headed by women, many of whom are unemployed, unemployable, and living a day-to-day 'hustling' type of existence. When both the man and the money are scarce, children become the closest and easiest targets of maternal anger and frustration. The situation is even worse when the 'on again', off again' male provider is not the biological father of the child or children.
While the abuse of children exists across all social classes in the society, the 'at-risk' factors are multiplied within the poorest groupings of the Jamaican child population. Children born to teenage parents and those born out of wedlock without proper planning or provision are especially at-risk for abuse. When the parental deficits are added to the deep levels of material poverty that exists, the youngest and most dependent members of our society are impacted in the most negative and oftentimes brutal manner.
Fatherlessness and joblessness also beget child abuse. Fathers and mothers who are employed in decent-paying jobs are less likely to abuse their children. Our experience at Hear The Children's Cry has proven that two working parents, mother and father, living in a harmonious relationship, tend to refrain from harsh disciplinary actions against their children. Similarly, our work has shown that employed single mothers with good familial and community support systems are among the least of the offenders.
The intergenerational cycle of aborted and poor education is a crucial factor in understanding this disturbing pattern of corporal punishment and child abuse. Parents with little or no formal education and who lack the knowledge and skills required for good parenting will impose severe forms of corporal punishment on their children. There are exceptions, of course.
Any proposal to legislate corporal punishment in homes will have to be accompanied by intense public education over a long period of time. Positive parenting is learned behaviour, and it must be taught by example and through the provision of information, simply and effectively communicated.
That urgently needed public education campaign should speak not only to the best interests of the children, but also to the best instincts of the adults. Research tells us that parents who abuse their children were most often themselves abused in childhood.
The big question is, "How do we create a gentler Jamaican society, and how do we put a stop to this epidemic?"
One simple yet profound answer can be found in the word 'love'. Some children have never heard it and many parents have never spoken it. If we are able to show love to one another, and if parents raise their children in love, the greater part of the battle would be won.
Love and abuse are incompatible, and if this message is conveyed widely and loudly, I feel certain that we will see a marked and significant difference in the way our children are treated both at home and in the wider society.
- Betty Ann Blaine is a child advocate and founder of Youth Opportunities Unlimited and Hear The Children's Cry.