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Schools in northern Nigeria ending corporal punishment

Shehu Salmanu in Katsina State, Nigeria
August 29, 2023

Caning and other forms of physical punishment have long been a fact of life for Nigerian schoolchildren. But in Katsina State, officials say school attendance has improved since the practice was banned.

School children write in a book
Officials have said less corporal punishment in schools is encouraging students to attend classesImage: Temilade Adelaja/REUTERS

For decades, teachers in Nigeria have used corporal punishment on schoolchildren under the guise of disciplining them.

In 2022, the global children's rights organization UNICEF estimated that 85% of Nigerian children under the age of 14 experienced beatings at school.

"Much of this violent discipline takes place in the form of corporal punishment in the very institutions that are entrusted to keep children safe, develop respect for human rights and prepare them for life in a society that promotes understanding peace and conflict resolution through dialogue," said Saadhna Panday-Soobrayan, chief of education for UNICEF, when presenting the figures at an August 2022 meeting in Abuja.

Nigeria has one of the highest rates of out-of-school children, according to UNICEF, with 10.5 million children aged 5 to 14 not attending primary school despite primary education being free and compulsory. This high number is due to several factors, such as destroyed schools in conflict zones and Quranic education for many Muslim girls, but some believe corporal punishment has also contributed to the low attendance rate.

Getting kids back to school

Corporal punishment in school is a controversial topic in Nigeria despite its ban under the nation's Child's Right Act of 2003. The country's legal system mixes Islamic law, English common law and local laws.

Individual states have the power to pass their own laws, which makes nationwide reforms difficult. According to Nigeria's National Human Rights Commission, only 24 of Nigeria's 36 states have enacted the Child's Right Act as state law.

However, the benefits of abolishing corporal punishment are becoming more prevalent. In the northern Nigerian state of Katsina, where the local government has implemented the Child's Right Act, authorities say school attendance is improving.

No beating and bullying allowed

DW visited one school in Katsina state that has banned beatings or corporal punishment. Classes were filled to capacity.

''Actually, corporal punishment in Katsina State is now a very negligible issue," Husamatu Muhammad Gonah, director of planning and statistics at Katsina's Education Ministry, told DW. He aimed to stop all corporal punishment entirely and quickly, and there are indications that the issue has gone away.

"We didn't get a single report from anybody, from any sector, from any angle, that says this is still going on," Gonah said.

Who is bullying the girls in Nigerian schools?

Instead of physical punishment, Gonah said misbehaving students benefit from guidance and counseling. He added that there is no need to resort to caning, a common form of corporal punishment in Nigeria, to maintain discipline.

''We have so many ways of punishing a student based on the degree of the offense. When a student comes to school late, you don't need to punish him. Ask him why he is coming to school late," Gonah said. 

He explained that punishment consists of counseling, sometimes with the parents present. ''We don't encourage beating and bullying students," said Gonah.

Spare the rod, spoil the child?

The adjustment also affects teachers, who have always relied on learners' fear of corporal punishment to maintain discipline.

"Teachers should know how to handle students based on their capability, based on the scope of punishment the student deserves," said Gonah.

But not everyone is as happy with the change. Some teachers have complained that the students' lack of fear has made teaching more difficult.

"The problem we encounter with the abolition of [corporal] punishment is antisocial behavior by some students," teacher Mallam Shamsudeen Muhammed told DW. He maintained that discipline encouraged good character, and good character made a pupil more susceptible to learning.

Teacher instructs a classroom in Nigeria
Teachers have been encouraged to find solutions to their learners' problems without resorting to forceImage: DW

However, the example of Katsina shows what ending corporal punishment can achieve. As DW joined 14-year student Zainab Ahmed on her walk to school, she praised the new order, saying more of her schoolmates are attending classes.

According to Ahmed, many of her peers did not attend school for fear of being beaten. Now, pupils are responding well to the new strategy.

''Corporal punishment has gone down drastically," she said. "What our teachers do is they calm us down and sit us down for an open talk and counseling to draw our attention to our mistakes."

Edited by: Cristina Krippahl

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