Tobago changed hands on at least 33 occasions from 1498 to 1814 between the Dutch, Courlanders, and French colonizers, before it was finally ceded to its British colonizer following the second Treaty of Paris in 1814. The island had a population of 60,874 at the last census in 2011 and according to the 2018 International Religious Freedom Report for Trinidad and Tobago by the United States Department of State, 85 per cent of Tobago’s population is of African descent and predominantly Christian.
Sonoke Gender Justice and Save The Children, two South-African based NGOs, have claimed that corporal (physical) punishment among African cultures is a legacy of colonialism and the slave trade, when on, September 18, 2019, the Constitutional Court of South Africa gave its final ruling that the common law defence of ‘reasonable and moderate chastisement’ was unconstitutional, effectively banning all corporal punishment of children, making them the 57th country to prohibit the corporal punishment of children.
South Sudan (one of the last nations to have large-scale slavery), Benin and Tunisia are the only other African states to also adhere to this policy. The ultimate goal, it is said, is not to propagate a cycle of crime and punishment but to provide new ways of disciplining children to parents, so that they can unlearn centuries of programming.
On February 10, 2020 (right before the pandemic triggered nationwide health protocols), we woke to a handkerchief drenching report of an eight-year-old girl who succumbed to her injuries from a beating meant to correct her bed-wetting ways. Her custodial parent was the same day found hanging from a nearby community tree. A 15-year-old child died as a result of her injuries from a corrective corporal (physical) punishment session. This gut-wrenching headline, we woke to on April 5, 2022. A headline, in which, no benevolent parent wants their name implicated and one; even more so, that no child wants for an epitaph: “Here lies the cherished progeny of loving parents, who disciplined them to death. The child leaves to mourn grief-stricken family, incredulous friends, and dumb-founded schoolmates.”
These two incidents, we can confess, are anomalies. Death of a minor by ‘licks’ is not trending in the Caribbean, and even less so in Tobago, even though, we can also acknowledge, that just one such death, is one too many.
Corporal (physical) punishment, however, is to date the #1 go-to method of discipline meted out across Tobagonian households. Many survivors attest to its effectiveness in reinforcing their normative behavioural patterns and claim it as the panacea for all manner of mal-behaviour and, its omission, as the basis of all of Tobago’s social ills. Ok, maybe not all, the discussion of ‘putting people so’ (necromancy) we leave for another time. Although there is international consensus about the efficacy of corporal punishment to elicit compliance from children, by its very nature, it can easily slip into the realm of physical maltreatment, without a conscious decision from the discipliner.
Earlier this month, the Tobago Writers Guild received an invitation from another Tobago-based NGO to participate in their conference. The International Advocacy Against Child Abuse (IAACA) educates families and communities about the negative effects of the various forms of child abuse, as well as provides practical methods of wholesome living.
The conference involved a week-long series of activities surrounding their mission of advocacy and the Guild was asked to be part of one of the conference days, where participants were given the opportunity to explore the topic of trauma repurposed through the expression of the written word, and dramatizations.
Uwani Fletcher and Garnet Lawrence represented the Guild and presented intricately woven pieces, exploring trauma and unpacking its many visages. These gifted storytellers are scheduled to perform at our upcoming Reading Fest–Full Moon at The Fort on October 9. Other contributors to the day’s exercises were high school students, from forms 4 to 6 from schools such as Mason Hall, Scarborough, Goodwood and Signal Hill Secondary School, and Bishop’s High School.
The day’s offering also included a presentation by Mr Alexander, a community social worker with the Division of Health, Wellness and Social Protection. He fielded several well-appointed inquiries from the audience about the synergies required to provide more user-friendly and impactful social services to vulnerable persons in the Tobago space. What seemed to be of particular concern was that help was indeed available and being rendered to those who, because of the economic and psychological effects of the pandemic, need temporary support and care. The high level of expressions of concern and inquisitiveness which came from the audience, and especially from the students, would leave one to surmise that Tobago will continue its strong culture of pulling together.
Trauma is the result of a multiplicity of unique events, but what came out of the conference to this attendee was that trauma resulting from corporal (physical) punishment is real, its effects definitive, measurable and thankfully preventable through multisectoral and multifaceted approaches. The World Health Organization (WHO), in a November 2021 missive, stated that:
•Evidence shows corporal punishment increases children’s behavioural problems over time.
•All corporal punishment, however mild or light, carries an inbuilt risk of escalation. Studies suggest that parents who used corporal punishment are at heightened risk of perpetrating severe maltreatment.
•Corporal punishment is linked to a range of negative outcomes for children across countries and cultures, including physical and mental ill-health, impaired cognitive and socio-emotional development, poor educational outcomes, increased aggression and perpetration of violence. The single desirable outcome of corporal punishment is the increased immediate compliance on the part of a child, however short-lived, as this form of punishment does not guarantee moral internalisation. It can indeed be said that Tobago need not continue to inaugurate opportunities for its coming generations to bond over stories of the misuse of pot spoons, household implements and guava branches by their well-meaning adult overlords in their limited understanding of the various ways to bring up a child in the way it should go.
The frustration experienced by adults due to a child’s misbehaviour, coupled with a lack of skills to address and handle it, make many strike out at children and use corporal punishment (sometimes accompanied by verbal, mental or other forms of emotional punishment). Some are of the belief that corporal punishment is therefore the result of default parenting and this article’s author is convinced.
Corporal punishment can lead to an intimate and lifelong relationship with violence and research has produced evidence which shows, children who receive corporal punishment are more likely to be involved in partner violence in adulthood. Although T&T is listed in 81st position, out of 102 countries on a domestic violence country ranking index (1 being the highest indexed) provided by the United Nations Statistics Division, daily headlines principally during the pandemic, denote that we have not much reason for a parade, in this respect.
We will not see any significant reduction in domestic, intimate partner or gender-based violence (GBV) statistics, until we become resigned to the correlation and accept that corporal punishment is simply unacceptable.