Stories: Children, Communities, Futures

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As a parent it’s hard to accept that so much of our children’s lives are largely beyond our control. We send them off to school with the hope that their teachers will nurture their learning, and ensure they feel safe and cared for.

With most Australian schools having banned corporal punishment, it’s a reminder of how far we’ve come in eliminating the risk of physical harm from our classrooms.

Classroom violence in the Asia-Pacific

Unfortunately for many children in the Asia Pacific, getting hit, pinched, slapped, beaten or kicked by a teacher is still a too common occurrence.

In Papua New Guinea – a country closer to our shores than New Zealand – children are often physically punished at school; at the very place where they are supposed to feel safe to learn and play.

Despite the gathering strength of a global movement to ban it, corporal punishment is still routinely administered in schools in many countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

This is despite the overwhelming evidence that physical punishment in schools inhibits learning and can be harmful to their physical and mental health.

As key indicators of schooling improve in these countries, thanks to domestic investment in education and international aid initiatives, corporal punishment remains an entrenched problem.

Why policy change is not enough

Here in Australia, corporal punishment has been removed from our classrooms through strong legal measures, coupled with a social and cultural shift away from techniques of classroom management which rely on physical punishment, to alternatives such as positive discipline.

But for countries like Papua New Guinea, which have committed to changing policy to prohibit corporal punishment, official policy change alone has not been enough.  

A baseline survey completed in 2018 by ChildFund Australia reveals that in one region of Papua New Guinea’s Central Province, over 80% of children reported experiencing corporal punishment. Many of these children reported going to school in fear of being smacked by their teacher.

In many of our neighbouring countries, the acceptance of corporal punishment and its place in the classroom is deeply embedded in generations of families and teachers – just as it once was here in Australia.

When I visit schools as part of ChildFund’s education programs in the Asia-Pacific region, I’m routinely told by children, parents and even the teachers themselves that corporal punishment is common. Many of these parents and teachers were themselves victims of corporal punishment.

Changing cultural norms

Breaking the cycle requires changing attitudes and cultural norms, while also adopting and accepting a new, unfamiliar approach to discipline.

If we are not able to break this cycle of physical abuse in the classroom, another generation of children will grow up accepting that violence is okay, and may be relied upon as a means to resolve future challenges later in life.

Papua New Guineans say that they are deeply dissatisfied with the way their society and their communities handle conflict and the ready resort to violence. Many, however, are yet to be persuaded of the link between violence directed at children at school and in the home and broader, social issues.

ChildFund staff on the ground in Papua New Guinea believe that the cultural acceptance of hitting kids in the classroom can be overturned through sensitive community education and by giving teachers new tools for discipline through contemporary teacher training programs.

These initiatives work to reduce corporal punishment by educating teachers about the negative effects of physical punishment on children, and offering them alternative approaches to use in classroom management.

Safe spaces encourage learning

It is heartening to watch children benefit from learning in environments where they feel safe and valued, have access to high-quality educational materials, and have the support of thoughtful teachers who care about their wellbeing.

But reducing the incidence of corporal punishment will take time, patience and greater investment – in teacher training programs, establishing School Boards of Management, and encouraging greater parent involvement in school administration.

It won’t happen overnight – as was the case in Australia last century. But eliminating corporal punishment in schools is not an insurmountable task, as our experience at home shows.

I look forward to a day soon when children throughout our region can go to school without fear.

About Richard Geeves
Richard Geeves is the Senior Advisor, Education at ChildFund Australia. Originally an educator, Richard is passionate about ensuring access to education for children living in marginalised communities, and international development issues. During his career, Richard has worked with Indigenous communities in Arnhem Land, with primary school teachers in Cambodia, and with development staff undertaking health, water and sanitation, child protection, and education projects in Papua New Guinea and south-east Asia. During his time at ChildFund, Richard has developed and implemented the organisation’s Development Effectiveness Framework, and now provides specialist education expertise to programs in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, PNG and Vietnam.

World Health Day is held annually on 7 April and marks the founding of the World Health Organisation in 1948.

For more than 70 years, this day has been used to increase public knowledge and awareness of important health issues.

From diabetes, vaccinations, and breast-feeding; to depression, road safety and physical activity, World Health Day generates global attention on the most significant health and wellbeing topics of our time.

A focus on health equality

This year, as the world continues to grapple with COVID-19, the World Health Day theme is: Building a fairer, healthier world.

This recognises how the arrival of a global pandemic has shone a spotlight on health inequality around the world.

The Constitution of the World Health Organization (WHO) states that the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being, regardless of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition.

However, the reality is that an individual’s birthplace can determine the ease in which they can access nearby, affordable, quality healthcare.

The impact of a global pandemic

According to the World Health Statistics 2020 report, only 33-50% of the world’s population was able to obtain essential health services in 2017.

With healthcare systems in many countries overwhelmed by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is likely that this access has reduced even further for thousands of children and families over the past 12 months.

The report says: “The COVID-19 pandemic not only draws into focus the need to rebuild resilient health systems with increased access to quality health services, lowered financial cost and a strengthened health workforce, but also calls for the provision of services such as routine vaccinations and basic hygiene and sanitation.”

Obstacles to accessing quality care

For children and families in developing communities, there are three major obstacles to accessing essential healthcare:

Location: In remote and rural areas, health clinics can be located at significant distances from communities. This is often compounded by a lack of public transport, with families needing to undertake long journeys on foot, as they cannot afford other transportation options.

Resources: Even where clinics are established, government budgets may constrain the services they are available to provide. With a shortage of qualified staff, and an even greater shortage of medical equipment and pharmaceuticals, these clinics may only be able to offer the most basic of care.

Cost: Children and adults with more complex conditions will generally require the services available at hospitals located in urban centres. While public health systems may offer care that is free of charge, funds are still needed to cover travel, accommodation, and food costs. As they are foregoing earnings during this time, the total sum needed to access quality healthcare can be out of reach for low-income families.

Supporting rural communities

ChildFund’s health programs are focused on increasing access to healthcare among children and families, by driving both community and systems change, particularly in remote and rural communities.

In Timor-Leste, ChildFund is training Community Health Volunteers (CHVs) to address high levels of child malnutrition and maternal mortality.

CHVs like Augusta regularly monitor the growth and health of children in her village, referring them to a health professional when required, and providing advice to parents and caregivers on hygiene and nutrition.

Augusta also supports pregnant and new mothers, recommending that they deliver babies in health facilities rather than at home, and the importance of breastfeeding.

In Papua New Guinea, with COVID-19 infection rates soaring, ChildFund is working with PNG’s Department of Health to ensure rural communities can still access essential healthcare, even where local clinics have closed.

ChildFund PNG’s Integrated Community Health Outreach Services are delivered in remote villages  with the help of ChildFund staff and district health personnel.

These outreach services bring vaccination, antenatal care, tuberculosis/HIV/malaria screening, family planning, growth monitoring, health promotion, and other priority health services to rural villages.

In Zambia, ChildFund is focused on reducing preventable deaths from malaria. The world’s most deadly vector borne disease is particularly dangerous among children, with 57% of malaria mortalities occurring among children under the age of five.

ChildFund Zambia is responding by:

  • educating children and their families about how to recognise the symptoms of malaria;
  • testing children and their families for malaria and providing referrals to treatment; and
  • providing families with insecticide-treated mosquito nets.

Health and wellbeing for all

ChildFund Australia health adviser Tracy Yuen says: “In recent decades, we have made significant progress towards achieving improved health outcomes around the globe.

“Life expectancy is increasing, while child and maternal mortality rates have reduced significantly.

“However, if we are to meet targets within Sustainable Development Goal 3 –  ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages  – we need to be better prepared for future global health emergencies, and provide targeted support in those regions where enormous disparities continue to exist in terms of access to quality care.”