Child Discipline and Child Brutality

Every Nigerian must have heard some parents say at some point, ‘I gave birth to you, and I can kill you and nothing will happen’. These threats are usually made just to emphasise that parents and guardians have a right of discipline. They do not mean that parents have a right to kill their children or that they intend to.

Child discipline is deeply ingrained in the fibre of the
Nigerian society. This is illustrated by the several sayings and proverbs of various ethnic groups in Nigeria that emphasise the importance of child discipline. So it is common to hear sayings like,’ no child ever died from crying’, ‘beat the child with the right hand and draw him/her back with the left’. It is also believed that it takes a village to train a child.

Thus, parents who are in financial difficulties, usually consider it to be in the best interest of their children, to send them off to relatives or even strangers who are better off financially. Very often, children staying with relatives are victims of child abuse and brutality. This is not to say that parents do not physically abuse or brutalise their own children. They do, but many times, guardians are more likely to deal impatiently and violently with children that are not theirs.

A disturbing number of child brutality cases have been reported by the main stream media, social media and even the police. On blogs that guarantee anonymity, people have recounted woeful tales of child abuse in their neighbourhood. Unsure of how to intervene, many have turned a blind eye, in order to avoid being called ‘busybodies’ or meddlesome interlopers.

Nonetheless, a few people have been bold enough to report child abuse cases to the police. The police in Enugu state recently arrested a couple for brutalising their housemaid, a young girl of ten years. The couple, drove a nail into the child’s head, used hot iron to inflict injuries on the girl and also inserted pepper in her private part.

Another couple was also arrested for brutalising their 12 year old daughter for falling asleep while slicing onions for the family’s meal. These incidents are not isolated cases, they are just a tiny reflection of the degree of child abuse going on in the society.

What does the Law say About the Discipline of a Child Often, when parents and guardians are arrested or reprimanded for brutalising children under their care, their excuse is usually that they were disciplining the child. The Criminal Code Act (applicable to the states in southern Nigeria) and the Penal Code Act (applicable to the northern states) permit the correction and discipline of a child. Section 295 of the Criminal Code Act provides that: ‘A blow or other force, not in any case extending to a wound or grievous harm, may be justified for the purpose of correction . . .’

A parent or guardian is permitted by law to correct his/her child or ward who is under sixteen years and this right of discipline may be delegated to another. Section 55 of the Penal Code also permits a parent or guardian to discipline a child or ward under eighteen years.

The right of discipline is not an unqualified right, it is subject to some limitation under the law. Under the Penal Code Act, discipline is permitted, provided it does not result in the infliction of grievous hurt to the child. Similarly, under the Criminal Code Act, discipline of a child is permitted to the extent only, that it does not result in the infliction of a wound or grievous harm. Grievous harm occurs when in the discipline of a child, he/she is maimed, seriously or permanently disfigured, or injured. The use of sharp or hard objects on children under the guise of discipline is impermissible under the law.

Accordingly, the law requires that correction should be reasonable in kind and degree, with due consideration given to the age, physical and mental condition of the person on whom it is inflicted. Discipline should be aimed at correcting a child and not be used as an avenue to release pent up anger or assuage an aggrieved or displeased parent/guardian. The distinction between discipline and physical abuse is clear. Physical abuse refers to any intentional force applied to the person of a child, which results in physical or non-physical injury or harm.

The Lagos State Safeguarding and Child Protection Policy defines physical abuse broadly to include: acts of violence such as punching (hitting with a fist), kicking, whipping, beating with an object, choking, smothering, trying to drown, burning intentionally, or using or threatening to use a gun, knife or other weapon, regardless of whether or not it resulted in obvious physical or mental injury. It is not focused on acts of discipline, although many of those perpetrating the violence may be doing so in the name of “discipline”.

Many however pretend not to know the difference between physical abuse and discipline. Section 11 of the Child’s Right Act reiterates the fact that a child is a human being and therefore entitled to the dignity of his person. Consequently, the law demands that no child should be subjected to physical injury, neglect or maltreatment, or to any form of torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

The duty to protect children is a collective as well as an individual duty. Therefore, neighbours who witness the physical abuse of children have a duty to intervene by reporting to the police or non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or government agencies involved in the protection of children.

Reports may be made anonymously. Parents also have a moral and legal duty to protect their children. Hence, giving out young children as maids or helps to both strangers and relatives should be avoided at all cost.

The punishment for inflicting grievous harm on a child is seven years imprisonment. Sometimes, the degree of injury inflicted on a child (such as injuring a child by driving a nail through his/her head, or inflicting an injury with a hot iron) may raise the presumption that the parent/guardian intended to kill or attempted to kill the child. If charged with attempted murder or manslaughter where death results, the punishment is life imprisonment.