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The gendered reality of corporal punishment in schools

30th April 2021


  • Chrissy Hart
    Chrissy Hart

    Director of Policy & Advocacy; Regional Lead, Sub-Saharan Africa,
    Together for Girls

Corporal punishment is the most widespread form of violence against children and youth globally. Early interventions are key to promoting gender equitable social norms

Social norms drive gender inequalities and violence, and even though access to education is a human right, students across the globe are impacted by school-related gender-based violence.

Schools are microcosms of society that can either mirror and reinforce or challenge gender-discriminatory attitudes and social norms. While students may come to school exposed to norms that condone violence and promote gender inequality, schools have the potential to serve as venues for positive social change.

Gender and corporal punishment

Findings from recently completed secondary analyses of the Violence Against Children and Youth Surveys (VACS) revealed that students’ experiences of corporal punishment by teachers varied based on the sex of both the teacher and the student.

The intersections between gender, corporal punishment, and its consequences

While both girls and boys experience physical violence as a form of punishment, they may suffer specific types of punishment based largely on their gender. For girls, corporal punishment can be a means to control their behavior, encourage submission and timidity, and to reinforce traditional gender roles. In turn, male teachers are often more violent toward male students, overall, reinforcing society-wide gendered dynamics of violence and its association with masculinity.

The variations in experiences and use of corporal punishment by gender suggest that other intersecting identity factors, including sexual orientation and gender diversity, disability, racial and ethnic identity, and socioeconomic status should be further studied.

Gender and corporal punishment policy brief

What the VACS tell us about corporal punishment in schools

Secondary analyses of 12 national Violence Against Children and Youth Surveys (VACS) were conducted to better understand the experiences of children and young people who attended school with respect to violence in and around school settings, particularly school-related gender-based violence.

The 12 Violence Against Children and Youth Surveys (VACS) found the following:

  • Corporal punishment in schools is prevalent but varies significantly by country and in some countries, experiences of corporal punishment vary significantly by gender.
  • Male teachers tend to perpetrate more corporal punishment against students of the same sex.
  • Corporal punishment can result in serious injuries ranging from bruises to broken bones.
  • Experiencing corporal punishment can result in school absenteeism.
  • Corporal punishment continues to be normalized, but more education often leads to less acceptance of violence, especially among girls.
  • Girls and boys who experience physical violence in and around schools are not getting the support and services they need.

VACS data illustrates gendered dimensions of corporal punishment

  1. We generated estimates of physical and sexual violence perpetrated by both peers and teachers in 12 countries: Colombia, Côte d’Ivoire, El Salvador, Honduras, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
  2. We looked at post-violence behaviors, including school absenteeism, disclosure, service-seeking, and service-receiving.
  3. Finally, we assessed the prevalence of several forms of violence by level of education and the relationship between education level and several health behaviors, beliefs and socio-demographic characteristics.

Fear of violence is the largest reason for children disliking school

Corporal punishment negatively impacts students’ participation in school and educational outcomes. Because schools play such a significant role in children’s development and socialization, they are a critical venue for social change and addressing social norms around violence and gender equality.

These findings indicate that those with a secondary school are less likely to agree with corporal punishment and other forms of violence, affirming the role of schools in the adoption or rejection of harmful social norms.

Corporal punishment is the most widespread form of violence against children and youth, globally. It has devastating consequences for every aspect of a child’s physical and psychological development. While prohibitions against corporal punishment in schools are common, the prevalence of violent discipline remains widespread, and likely underestimated. The 2016 UNICEF Young Lives 4-country, cross-regional study found that children reported fear of violence as the single most common reason for disliking school.

An opportunity to build back better

Together for Girls conducted this research with AidData – A Research Lab at the College of William & Mary and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with support from USAID’S Higher Education Solutions Network and Global Affairs Canada. Contributing partners include the End Corporal Punishment team at the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children, UNGEI, and USAID.

COVID-19 exacerbated the inequitable educational access for almost 2 billion school-age children worldwide. As a result, as many as 20 million girls never returned to school. As recovery efforts roll out, there is an imperative opportunity to build back better. Educators must understand how the gendered nature of corporal punishment reinforces generational cycles of violence. In doing so we can ensure that all children return to schools that provide safe, positive learning environments.