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Paddling the pupils
The legality (or not) of corporal punishment in schools

Despite many mandates against corporal punishment in schools and conclusive evidence that such discipline is physically and psychologically harmful to children’s well-being and dignity – why does the practice continue to flourish and be condoned across most corners of the globe? We address this question with research grounded upon the 1990 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), including 192 nations’ self-reports mandated under the CRC. For our study, we collected information on legal bans on the practice of corporal punishment in schools for 192 countries from 1972 to 2016 and used panel data methods (including a hazard model and two-way fixed effects model) to examine the factors associated with countries adopting bans on corporal punishment in schools. Our findings highlight that the CRC was effective in encouraging the diffusion of corporal punishment bans globally. Yet, it was not enough to end corporal punishment in school systems in most countries. Specifically, we learned that common law countries – those with English legal origin – lagged significantly behind their civil law counterparts in enacting bans. Countries with low levels of female political empowerment also made significantly slower progress towards banning corporal punishment practices during this time period. Our findings suggest that future global efforts to strengthen the human rights, dignity, and empowerment of children may require varied strategies adapted to different legal and political contexts.

International attention to the issue of children’s rights and dignity has grown in recent years, both culminating in—and then drawing momentum from—the landmark United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1989. The CRC represents a changing international consensus on the rights of children, emphasizing that children, as human beings, should have a certain level of autonomy and codified legal protections (Hammarberg 1990; Melton 2005; Reynaert et al. 2009). It is formidable in its range of provisions and its specificity: it states that children have the right to have their basic needs fulfilled (addressing issues of hunger, health care, education, and play); the right to participate in decisions affecting their own well-being; and the right to be free from harm (Hammarberg 1990; Melton 2005). Each United Nations (UN) member state except for the United States has ratified the Convention (Lansford et al. 2017; Melton 2005).

Despite this momentous sign of progress, children’s rights are still under threat around the globe over three decades later. Our chapter focuses on one right specifically guarded under the CRC—protection of children from corporal punishment, or the use of physical discipline as a form of reprimanding children for misbehaviors (Zolotor and Puzia 2010). For instance, the CRC asserts that states shall take all appropriate measures to “protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation” (Article 19); ensure that “school discipline is administered in a manner consistent with the child’s human dignity” (Article 28); and ensure that “no child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (Article 37). Despite the growth in attention to children’s rights and dignity globally, empirical research—especially in terms of quantitative analysis identifying factors that affect the legal status of corporal punishment of children across nations—remains scarce. While some work has focused on certain regions or countries (e.g. see Straus 2010), or in a broader context (Kury et al. 2004), very little research has examined corporal punishment cross-nationally (Zolotor and Puzia 2010).

We seek to understand why some countries legally permit corporal punishment of children while others do not—with a specific focus on the practice of corporal punishment in schools. We focus on the factors that help explain why certain countries ban corporal punishment in schools, while it remains legal in other countries. The results of our study hold value for understanding the nature of how legal and cultural norms surrounding a contentious issue such as corporal punishment in schools develop. They also inform our understanding of the role of high-profile international accountability efforts in promoting this development.

We collected and examined data on legal bans on corporal punishment in schools from 1970 to 2016, looking at 192 countries as to whether these countries have or have not banned this behavior, and if so, when. Specifically, several law students collected information about the legal status of corporal punishment by assessing reports from two existing sources: (1) reports on every state and territory from the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children and (2) country reports from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. The authors and our research team examined every existing country self-report submitted to the UN, looking for any discussion on societal norms regarding corporal punishment and attempts to modify beliefs and behaviors surrounding corporal punishment. Researchers additionally reviewed all reports submitted to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, searching for terms including “corporal punishment,” “discipline,” “hit,” “slap,” and “spank,” and reviewed all sections that addressed the disciplining of children. The number of countries that ban corporal punishment in schools has changed dramatically over the years; at the front end of our study (1970), there were fewer than ten countries, but by the final year (2016), the number had risen to more than one hundred countries. In the analysis below, we assess the factors contributing to the enactment of bans by examining key religious, legal, political, and social characteristics of the nation. We rely upon logistic regression and hazard modeling to determine descriptively which factors are most salient to predicting whether and when a country bans corporal punishment in schools. We further employ a regression with country and year fixed effects to determine causally the impact of countries ratifying the CRC on subsequent legal action toward banning corporal punishment.

In the sections below, we lay out the literature that serves to motivate our hypotheses regarding which types of countries ban corporal punishment of children in schools. We then discuss the data, as well as how the dependent variable was created, and offer a summary of the methods used to analyze the data. Finally, we discuss the results and their implications. Our findings suggest three main predictors of legal bans on corporal punishment in schools. First, we document that CRC ratification successfully accelerated the adoption of corporal punishment bans internationally. Second, we observe that countries with common-law legal systems are less likely to adopt corporal punishment bans than countries with more flexible legal systems—even following CRC ratification. Third, we find that countries with higher levels of female political empowerment are more likely to adopt corporal punishment bans than countries with lower levels of female political empowerment. These patterns illuminate important remaining barriers to the legal protection of children against corporal punishment in schools. With the rights and dignity of children “under siege”—as this volume suggests—we believe a fuller understanding of these barriers can help to inform and strengthen future policy efforts.

Literature review and hypotheses

Overview of the use of corporal punishment

Corporal punishment can occur in both home and school settings and may include hitting with objects (sticks, straps, wooden boards, and rods); pinching; pulling ears; pulling hair; face scalding; slapping; spanking; shaking; and smacking (Dupper and Dingus 2008; Gershoff 2017; Straus 2010; Zolotor and Puzia 2010). Research has increasingly found that corporal punishment has negative physical, psychological, emotional, and mental effects on children’s well-being, causing it to be discredited as a disciplinary practice (Hyman 1995; Ogando, Portela, and Pells 2015; Straus and Paschall 2009).

In the school setting, school personnel use corporal punishment for a variety of infractions, ranging from giving incorrect answers to missing class (Gershoff 2017). The prevalence of corporal punishment in school varies widely across the globe. Gershoff (2017) concludes that 98 percent of students and 96 percent of administrators in South Korea report observing corporal punishment. Alternatively, in the United States, only 1 percent of students nationwide reported receiving corporal punishment, with the percentage varying across states.1

Norms surrounding the use of corporal punishment in the school setting also vary. Parents in the United States are more likely to support the use of corporal punishment if they believe that (1) the practice is approved by professionals (i.e., a physician or religious leader); (2) the practice is socially acceptable; and/or (3) the practice is supported by family members or friends (Taylor et al. 2011). Cross-national studies concur that parents are more likely to use corporal punishment if they believe it is a socially accepted parenting tool (Lansford et al. 2010). Furthermore, parents in countries where other forms of violence are prevalent (i.e., civil war) are more likely to engage in corporal punishment against children (Lansford and Dodge 2008). Finally, in one of the few studies that focuses on school educators’ and administrators’ perceptions of corporal punishment, Bailey et al. (2014) find that support for corporal punishment in Caribbean countries primarily derives from the belief that it is effective and traditionally accepted by society. These studies suggest that both parents and school administrators employ corporal punishment when they believe it is a socially acceptable practice.

Corporal punishment bans and the CRC

Because the corporal punishment of children has been linked to a bevy of detrimental side effects, countries have increasingly banned the practice in school and home settings. Sweden was the first such country to ban corporal punishment, which it did in the 1970s (Durrant 1999; Roberts 2000; Ziegert 1983). It was the CRC, however, that marked a turning point in the use of corporal punishment globally. Prior to the CRC, the international consensus was that child-rearing methods were the prerogative of the parents and that governments should respect parental autonomy except in cases of child abuse (Cohen and Naimark 1991; Howe 2001; Reynaert et al. 2009; Straus 2010). Under the doctrine of in loco parentis, teachers were expected to serve “in the place of the parent” and take on the parental rights of the students they were teaching. Schools were justified in using corporal punishment since parents also often used it (Dupper and Dingus 2008). The CRC challenged the use of corporal punishment as it violates children’s dignity, and it identified the practice as a form of violence against children. Several years after the passage of the CRC, the CRC committee stated that “Addressing widespread acceptance of corporal punishment and eliminating it is an obligation of States and a key strategy in reducing all forms of violence” (Committee on the Rights of the Child 2006 as quoted in Zolotor and Puzia 2010). Thus, the use of corporal punishment is against the spirit of the CRC.

Scholars and policy experts had concerns about the CRC at its onset: while it contained a plethora of provisions to protect children, the enforcement mechanisms enshrined in it were weak (Cohen and Naimark 1991; Hammarberg 1990). Accordingly, while 192 countries ratified the agreement, 68 still allowed corporal punishment in schools as of June 2018 (Global Initiative 2018). Furthermore, several European countries such as Sweden banned corporal punishment prior to the passage of the CRC. Thus, the CRC’s impact on ending corporal punishment globally may have been more modest than its proponents had envisioned.

English legal origin and the endurance of corporal punishment

Despite international recognition of the harmful effects on children, why has corporal punishment endured as a practice? We hypothesize that solely ratifying the CRC will not lead a country to ban corporal punishment. Rather, whether a country bans corporal punishment is highly contingent on its legal system.

Legal systems can essentially be broken into primarily two categories: civil-law and common-law systems. In the former, law is primarily derived from codified legal codes passed by a country’s legislative branch. In such systems, previously decided court cases are not recognized as sources of law, though judges may take precedent into consideration to a certain extent (Merryman 1969). Conversely, judicial precedent is a key source of law in common-law systems, along with legislation and constitutional provisions (Asal et al. 2013; Hathaway 2003; Merryman 1969; Shmueli 2010; Sommer et al. 2013). In common-law systems, the principle of stare decisis holds that similar cases should be decided upon similarly. In this sense, judicial precedent is as binding as laws passed through the legislature.

We hypothesize that once a civil-law country had ratified the CRC, it was more likely than its common-law counterparts to institute a ban on corporal punishment.1 In civil-law countries, new laws are enacted via their passage through the legislature. Although this process can be arduous, the law is more adaptable and can change more easily according to new societal norms in the civil system as compared to common law. The important implication of the CRC for the practice of corporal punishment is that it explicitly took the position that children, like adults, have the right to be free from violence and inhumane treatment, which extends to corporal punishment. By adopting the agreement, countries who ratified the CRC inherently adopted the belief that children should not be subjected to corporal punishment. Civil-law countries should have been able to adapt more quickly to the changing norms regarding children’s rights.

Yet several studies in the human rights literature find that common-law countries generally tend to have better human rights records than civil-law systems, especially regarding “personal integrity rights” or coercion on the part of the state such as murder, unlawful incarceration, and the repression of civil liberties (Poe and Tate 1994). Common-law countries perform better in this regard primarily due to the judicial independence inherent in these systems (Keith et al. 2009; Mitchell et al. 2013). Thus, an independent judiciary is better able to protect individuals’ rights due to the presence of more checks and balances, or veto points, on other governmental branches (Conrad and Moore 2010; Mitchell et al. 2013; Tsebelis 2002). On the other hand, some studies find that a system with an independent judiciary may maintain the status quo, potentially preventing countries from improving human rights protections. For example, Conrad and Moore (2010), drawing upon Tsebelis’s (2002) veto point thesis, argue that the checks and balances in many liberal democracies prevent countries from terminating the use of torture, a form of personal integrity violation. This is because the use of torture is the status quo and, in a system with many veto points, changing the status quo is difficult. In a common-law system where there is less judicial independence from other governmental institutions, the chances of “vetoing” a change to the status quo are high. Drawing upon Conrad and Moore (2010), we argue that common-law countries are less likely to implement corporal punishment bans since the use of corporal punishment is the status quo and is difficult to change. As studies in other policy areas note, stare decisis creates a policy path dependency where policy on a given issue area becomes “locked in” (Asal et al. 2013; Hathaway 2003; Sommer et al. 2013). For better or worse, the implication of this system is that the initial judicial decision is reached in a certain temporal context and is resistant to changes in popular opinion on the issue (Asal et al. 2013). This is particularly problematic for human rights issues where contemporary social norms or research may not match antiquated and often unjust laws.

Thus, we have derived the following hypothesis:

Hypothesis 1: Common-law countries are less likely to ban corporal punishment in schools and also less likely to ban corporal punishment in schools in response to CRC ratification.

The role of religion in the use of corporal punishment

Next, we test the relationship between country-level corporal punishment bans and two major world religions: Christianity and Islam. We believe that countries which have higher Christian populations will be less likely to ban corporal punishment. Several previous studies examine the relationship between religion and the use of corporal punishment of children at the family level in the United States, though none have analyzed this relationship at the country level. These studies find that conservative Christian schools are more likely to punish students physically than secular schools and schools affiliated with other religions (Bartkowski and Ellison 1995; Ellison and Sherkat 1993; Ellison et al. 1996; Grasmick et al. 1992;). These authors conclude that the positive correlation between conservative Christianity and the use of corporal punishment is derived from religious ideology (Bartowski and Ellison 1995). The underlying concept is the old adage “spare the rod and spoil the child.” In this view, corporal punishment is not viewed as physical abuse but rather as a tool to help a child’s development. If a country has a large population of Christians with such a perspective, it is unlikely that legislation would be passed at a national level to ban corporal punishment because it is unlikely to receive broad social support.

Given the previous findings of a link between conservative Christianity and the use of physical punishment of children, we expect the following hypothesis.

Hypothesis 2: Countries with a large percentage of Christians should be less likely to ban the corporal punishment of children in schools.

We also anticipate that countries with large Muslim populations will be less likely to ban corporal punishment. This is due to contemporary applications of Sharia law in countries with a Muslim majority, where the courts are willing to enforce corporal punishment for crimes committed (Peters 2006). For example, “Muslim states have consistently challenged all efforts designed to abolish capital punishment, on the ground that Sharia mandates the death penalty for certain offenses” (Nanda 1993, 330). If Muslim countries are unwilling to eliminate capital punishment because it goes against religious teachings, they are also unlikely to abolish the corporal punishment of children if religiously prescribed.

Hypothesis 3: Countries with a large percentage of Muslims should be less likely to ban the corporal punishment of children in schools.

Gender and corporal punishment

We believe that gender, as represented by female political empowerment, has a relationship with corporal punishment bans in schools for two primary reasons. Previous studies indicate that women are generally less likely to support the use of corporal punishment (Durrant 1999; Gracia and Herrero 2008; Hurwitz and Smithey 1998; Kennedy 1995). Generally, female educators find that corporal punishment is less effective at correcting misbehavior than other methods (Kennedy 1995). Furthermore, women are generally more averse to violence than men and tend to be more supportive of compassionate policies (Hurwitz and Smithey 1998). Several studies have found that women are less likely to support physical punishment than men (Hurwitz and Smithey 1998; Shapiro and Mahajan 1986; Stinchcombe et al. 1980). Although Hurwitz and Smithey (1998) find that women may be more accepting of punishing perpetrators in certain crimes, such as in instances of rape or domestic violence, women tend to be particularly averse to using violence in the punishing of children. Therefore, a greater number of female voters or women in political positions may be associated with corporal punishment bans.

Secondly, female political empowerment may not simply reflect the values and attitudes of women but also reflect the progressiveness of society itself (Straus 2010). Studies have found clear links between women’s rights and human rights issues. For instance, greater female political empowerment and women’s rights protections are associated with lower state repression of dissent (Larsson 2018; Lv and Deng 2019). Given that there is a relationship between female political empowerment and progressive views on human rights, this further supports that there is likely to be a relationship between female political empowerment and corporal punishment.

Hypothesis 4: Countries with high levels of female political empowerment are more likely to ban the corporal punishment of children in schools.

Data

To examine the contributing factors in countries’ decisions to ban corporal punishment in schools, this study draws from a panel dataset of 192 countries spanning forty-six years, from 1970 to 2016. To build this dataset, we first collected comprehensive information from primary and secondary sources on whether each country had a legal ban on corporal punishment in schools in place each year. We then matched this data to key social, political, demographic, and economic measures from the Quality of Governance database (Teorell et al. 2016, 2017) that are theoretically hypothesized to be important predictors based on the literature. This section provides details on each measure used in the empirical analysis.

Legal bans on corporal punishment in schools. We collected information on the changing legal status of corporal punishment in schools by first accessing reports from two existing sources: (1) reports on every state and territory from the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children; and (2) country reports from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. These two organizations have assembled detailed information about children’s rights and corporal punishment law across the globe. We then confirmed each data point and examined each missing data point, using deeper research into the historical legal codes of each country.

Out of this process, the final constructed indicator (which serves as our primary dependent variable) equals 1 if the country has an active corporal punishment legal ban in schools in that year, and 0 if it does not. In cases where a country bans the practice only in certain settings—for example, just in public schools, or just in certain subnational regions—we conservatively code these as 0. Overall, 16.3 percent of country year observations in our data had active bans of corporal punishment in schools.2

CRC ratification. We collected data on the date of ratification of the UN CRC for each country from the Database of the UN Office of Legal Affairs. This database contains information on date of signature, date of ratification/accession, date of acceptance of individual communications procedure, and date of acceptance of inquiry procedure, representing different steps along the process of country involvement. We use the date of ratification/accession (available for all countries except for the United States, which has not ratified) to code an indicator variable of post-ratification.

Quality of governance data on predictors

The final dataset merges collected information on the legal status of school corporal punishment and CRC ratification with time series Quality of Governance (QOG) data from both the 2016 and 2017 versions since they have slightly different variable availability (Teorell et al. 2016, 2017). The QOG project is an effort by the Quality of Government Institute to combine comparative data from numerous sources into one dataset and make them publicly available for researchers. We identified time series variables of interest according to our theoretical hypotheses, with the restriction that the variable must vary over time and be available over the observed time period of interest. The variables described here each have longitudinal coverage over at least the time period of 1970 to 2010, and most for the full coverage of years through 2016.3

English legal origin. Our legal origin variable, originally developed by La Porta et al., identifies the legal origin of the company law or commercial code of each country (La Porta et al. 1999). These authors matched each country to one of five potential legal origins: English common law, French civil law, German civil law, Scandinavian law, and socialist law. Based on prior research (Asal et al. 2013; Sommer et al. 2013), we predict English common law to have the largest influence on legal developments within human rights law, and therefore code a single binary variable equaling 1 for English common law, and 0 for any other form of legal origin. Several countries were missing legal origin data, which we supplemented through our own research from the CIA World Factbook.4

Percentage of adherents Christian. This variable captures the percentage of a population that adheres to the religion of Christianity, including among others Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox sects.5 Maoz and Henderson (2013) developed this variable through the World Religion Dataset (WRD), which contains information on religious adherence worldwide every five years since 1945. The measure spans from a value of 0, representing 0 percent adherence to Christianity, to a value of 1, representing 100 percent adherence.

Percentage of adherents Muslim. This measure represents the percentage of a population that adheres to the religion of Islam, including Ahmadiyya, Alawite, Ibadhi, Nation of Islam, Shi’a, Sunni, and other sects. Maoz and Henderson (2013) developed this variable through the World Religion Dataset (WRD), which contains information on religious adherence worldwide every five years since 1945. The measure again spans from a value of 0, representing 0 percent adherence to Islam, to a value of 1, representing 100 percent adherence.

Female political empowerment. Our next variable is drawn from the Varieties of Democracy Project, an international collaboration co-hosted by the Department of Political Science at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden and the Kellogg Institute at the University of Notre Dame, USA (Coppedge et al. 2016a, 2016b). Their constructed “Women Political Empowerment Index” seeks to measure how politically empowered women are in a given state and year. Female political empowerment incorporates three equally weighted dimensions: fundamental civil liberties, women’s open discussion of political issues and participation in civil society organizations, and the descriptive representation of women in formal political positions. The continuous measure (ranging hypothetically from 0 to 1) is a simple average of three indices measuring those three dimensions.

Democratic political system. We include as a control measure an indicator of whether or not a country was considered a democracy in the specified year. Boix and Rosato (2013), the original authors of this variable, define a country as democratic if it satisfies conditions for both contestation and participation. Specifically, democracies feature political leaders chosen through free and fair elections that satisfy a threshold value of suffrage. Furthermore, several studies in the human rights literature find that liberal democracies are a key indicator of greater human rights protections (Bueno de Mesquita et al. 2005; Conrad and Moore 2010; Henderson 1991; Davenport 1995; Poe and Tate 1994).

Real gross domestic product (GDP) per capita. This variable captures real GDP per capita in constant US dollars at base year 2000 (Gleditsch 2002). Gleditsch imputed missing data using the CIA World Fact Book and extrapolated beyond available time-series. We include this control measure to account for the level of economic development and productivity of each country in each year.

Total population. Our measure of population size is taken from the World Development Indicators (WDI) dataset (World Bank 2016), also available through QOG. This total population count reflects midyear estimates of all residents regardless of legal status or citizenship. This variable controls for any within-country trends in population growth.

Methods

Our first two questions are descriptive: (1) which country-level characteristics predict the likelihood of having a current legal ban on corporal punishment in schools, and (2) which country-level characteristics predict the likelihood of enacting a legal ban earlier, versus later, during the time period. For the first question, we perform logistic regression on a cross-sectional subset of the data from the most recent year, 2016. We regress the corporal punishment in schools legal ban indicator on an indicator of English legal origin, the percentage of the population adherent to Christianity, the percentage of the population adherent to Islam, the female political empowerment index, and a vector of other country-level characteristics including democratic governance, economic productivity, and population size.

The second question of interest adds the dimension of time to predicting factors of how quickly (or slowly) different types of countries introduce corporal punishment in school bans. For this question, we use the full panel dataset from 1970 to 2016 with a Cox proportional hazards model (Cox 1972).6 In this approach, the dependent variable is the hazard function for each country in each year conditional on all observed characteristics of that country. Specifically, we estimate which predictive factors are associated with the increased “hazard” of passing a corporal punishment ban at any given time.

We also explore whether countries’ ratifications of the CRC affected their subsequent actions on banning corporal punishment in schools, with attention to how responses to CRC differed for countries with English legal origin. Because both observable and unobservable factors are likely correlated with a country’s ratification of CRC, we prefer a model with country fixed effects, which can estimate the impacts of CRC using within-country variation across time. Therefore, we regress the corporal punishment ban indicator on an indicator of current CRC ratification status, an interaction term of current CRC ratification status with the country common-law origin indicator, country year fixed effects, year fixed effects, and all other country explanatory variables as defined above. In this way, we can estimate the distinct effects of CRC ratification on the likelihood of a corporal punishment ban for both non-common-law and common-law countries.

Results

This study first considers how the legality of corporal punishment in schools has shifted internationally over the relevant forty-six years. As Figure 1.1 suggests, prior to 1980, fewer than five countries banned corporal punishment in schools, and there was little movement toward introducing more legal bans. In 1990, twelve countries had active bans on corporal punishment in schools as global attention to the issue heightened. The CRC came into force in the same year, a key component of which urged countries to restrict the use of corporal punishment against children. Since 1990, the plot in Figure 1.1 shows a subsequent rapid growth in country bans on corporal punishment in schools, increasing at a rate seven times greater than the rate prior to CRC. In 1970, only one country banned corporal punishment in schools, but by 2016, 56.8 percent of countries had done so.

Figure 1.1 Number of country legal bans on corporal punishment in schools 1970–2016. Note. According to our data collection, the very first country ban took place in 1970. The vertical red line represents the year in which the CRC became effective (1990). (Although the CRC was opened for signature in 1989, it only received enough signatures to become effective in 1990.)

Table 1.1 provides summary statistics for the dependent variable and each of the independent variables in our full sample. Because of our particular interest in how English legal origin may dictate whether and when a country adopts a corporal punishment ban in schools, the table also presents summary statistics separately for countries with and without English legal origin. Overall, 30 percent of countries in our sample have English legal origin. Approximately one-half of country-year observations exist after that country has ratified the CRC. Because our sample contains the vast majority of countries (192 countries), the summary statistics of our sample represent an unweighted view of countries of the world. Just over half of these countries are democracies across 1970 to 2016; 56 percent of countries’ populations are Christian, 25 percent are Muslim; the average GDP is $10,600 per capita; and the average population is 28.4 million. On a scale of 0 to 1, average female political empowerment for countries during this time period is 0.59. Common-law countries (column 2) are slightly more likely to have democratic governments, have somewhat smaller per-capita productivity, have larger populations, and have fewer adherents to Islam, but are otherwise quite similar to other countries across these metrics.

Table 1.1

Summary statistics by legal origin of country

  (1) (2) (3)
  Full sample English legal origin countries Other legal origin countries
English legal origin (0 or 1) 0.301 1.000 0.000
  (0.459) (0.000) (0.000)
Ratified CRC indicator (0 or 1) 0.503 0.493 0.508
  (0.500) (0.500) (0.500)
Percentage adherents to Christianity (0 to 1) 0.563 0.553 0.568
  (0.382) (0.369) (0.387)
Percentage adherents to Islam (0 to 1) 0.252 0.202 0.273
  (0.368) (0.323) (0.384)
Female political empowerment index (0 to 1) 0.593 0.589 0.594
  (0.281) (0.217) (0.300)
Dichotomous democracy measure (0 or 1) 0.503 0.556 0.479
  (0.500) (0.497) (0.500)
Real GDP per capita (in thousands) 10.600 8.556 11.494
  (21.467) (11.200) (24.596)
Total population (in millions) 28.398 35.296 25.415
  (112.919) (131.246) (103.866)
       
Observations 9,024 2,716 6,308

Country-level predictors of corporal punishment bans

Our findings examining predictors of state bans on corporal punishment in schools are presented in the table below. Column 1 of Table 1.1 provides results from the cross-sectional logistic regression of an indicator of whether that country has an active ban on corporal punishment in schools in the year 2016 on the set of explanatory variables. The first four coefficient estimates listed correspond to the four main hypotheses: (H1) common-law countries are less likely to ban corporal punishment in schools; (H2) countries with a large percentage of Christians and (H3) countries with a large percentage of Muslims are less likely to ban corporal punishment in schools; and (H4) countries with higher levels of female political empowerment are more likely to ban corporal punishment in schools.

The coefficient on English legal origin is significant at 0.246 (p < 0.01), indicating that common-law countries are 75.4 percent less likely to have a ban in 2016 than non-common-law countries. Neither coefficient on the religious adherence measures is statistically significant, rejecting both Hypothesis 2 and Hypothesis 3. Finally, an increase from 0 to 1 on the female political empowerment index corresponds to an 890 percent increase in the likelihood of having a ban on corporal punishment in schools in 2016 (p < 0.1). A more moderate increase of 0.1 in the female political empowerment index would translate to an 89 percent increase in the likelihood of having a current corporal punishment ban. We include multiple control variables in the current ban regressions—indicator of democratic governance, real GDP per capita, and total population size—but none of those variables emerge as statistically significant predictors.

Table 1.2

Country-level predictors of ban on corporal punishment in schools

Variables (1) (2)
  Current ban Time of ban
  (odds ratio) (hazard ratio)
English legal origin 0.2459*** 0.3968***
  (0.103) (0.119)
Percentage adherents to Christianity 2.1604 1.6516
  (1.607) (0.739)
Percentage adherents to Islam 0.8156 1.0698
  (0.585) (0.500)
Female political empowerment index 8.8996* 11.8046***
  (11.245) (9.721)
Dichotomous democracy measure 1.0278 0.8422
  (0.469) (0.245)
Real GDP per capita (in thousands) 1.0072 1.0054
  (0.017) (0.010)
Total population (in millions) 1.0002 1.0006
  (0.001) (0.001)
Constant 0.2665  
  (0.264)  
     
Observations 157 6,035
Number of countries 157 159
Number of “failures” (bans) 89 89

The results from column 1 confirm that common-law countries and countries with low levels of female political empowerment lag behind other nations in enacting bans on corporal punishment in schools. In column 2, we proceed to consider which types of countries enacted these bans earlier versus later using a Cox proportional hazards model. The coefficients presented are hazards ratios, and therefore should be interpreted as the relative increases or decreases in the “hazard” of a country implementing a ban on corporal punishment in schools each year. The significant coefficient on English legal origin (p < 0.01) implies that countries of English legal origin have a 60.3 percent lower hazard of initiating a corporal punishment ban in each year. Neither Christian adherence of a state nor Muslim adherence significantly predict the timing of corporal punishment bans. And, consistent with the logistic regression results, states with high levels of female political empowerment have a much higher hazard of initiating a corporal punishment ban each year. More specifically, an increase of just 0.1 in the female political empowerment index, which spans from 0 to 1, would raise the hazard of a corporal punishment ban by 118 percent. Again, none of the coefficients on our control measures are statistically significant from 0.

Effects of UN CRC

Our final set of results tests whether countries are more likely to enact corporal punishment bans following their country’s ratification of the CRC from a model with both country and year fixed effects. Estimated coefficients can be interpreted as the within-country change in likelihood of banning corporal punishment following CRC ratification.

Table 1.3 presents results from these hypotheses. In column 1, the estimated coefficient on CRC ratification is 0.057 (p < 0.01). This means that countries are 5.7 percent more likely to ban corporal punishment in schools following ratification of the convention as compared to the prior period. Column 2 provides estimates from a model examining heterogeneous effects of the convention by legal origin of the country. Here we find that non-common-law countries experience an increase of 8.8 percentage points in their propensity to ban corporal punishment following CRC ratification (p < 0.01). This positive boost from CRC does not extend, however, to common-law countries, which have an 11.9 percentage point smaller boost from CRC ratification than other countries (p < 0.01). In essence, CRC ratification has either no effect on initiation of corporal punishment legal bans for common-law countries, or even has a modest dampening effect.

Table 1.3

Effects of UN Convention on the Rights of the Child ratification (by country legal origin)

Variables (1) (2)
  Current ban Time of ban
  (odds ratio) (hazard ratio)
English legal origin 0.2459*** 0.3968***
  (0.103) (0.119)
Percentage adherents to Christianity 2.1604 1.6516
  (1.607) (0.739)
Percentage adherents to Islam 0.8156 1.0698
  (0.585) (0.500)
Female political empowerment index 8.8996* 11.8046***
  (11.245) (9.721)
Dichotomous democracy measure 1.0278 0.8422
  (0.469) (0.245)
Real GDP per capita (in thousands) 1.0072 1.0054
  (0.017) (0.010)
Total population (in millions) 1.0002 1.0006
  (0.001) (0.001)
Constant 0.2665  
  (0.264)  
     
Observations 157 6,035
Number of countries 157 159
Number of “failures” (bans) 89 89

Concluding discussion

As the theme of this volume suggests, many different forms of children’s rights remain vulnerable across the globe. In this chapter, we focused on the protection of children from physical punishment and developed hypotheses concerning whether, when, and why countries outlawed corporal punishment in the school setting. Our main contention states that the English common-law legal system helps to explain cross-national patterns in corporal punishment bans, due to the nature of legal precedent and the corresponding development of social norms. We empirically tested this assertion through cross-sectional and hazard model analyses, which substantiated the key role that common-law legal systems play in the adoption of legal bans on corporal punishment in schools. Furthermore, even common-law countries that ratified the CRC agreement in apparent support of protecting children’s rights were no more likely to subsequently outlaw corporal punishment in schools.

Thus, our findings contrast with other studies on common-law countries, which find that such countries tend to perform better in the area of human rights than civil-law systems (Keith et al. 2009; Mitchell et al. 2013; Poe and Tate 1994). There are, however, several explanations for this divergence. First, previous studies typically focus on individuals’ “physical integrity violations,” which include “murder, torture, forced disappearance, and the imprisonment of persons for their political views” (Poe and Tate 1994, 854). While children’s rights to freedom from physical harm undoubtedly falls in the category of “physical integrity rights,” the human rights literature does not often conceptualize it as such. Similarly, these studies use datasets like the Political Terror Scale (PTS), which focus solely on instances of state-perpetrated physical integrity violations (Haschke 2022). Thus, the corporal punishment of children at the hands of school officials is not included in most physical integrity rights datasets, if at all. In this sense, we suggest that human rights scholars think more carefully about their conceptualizations of “human rights” and “physical integrity violations.” As our study suggests, a more inclusive conceptualization may challenge conventional understandings of human rights.

Our results also confirm the hypothesized effects of country ratification of the CRC and female political empowerment on legal bans, but do not support the hypothesized effects of religious adherence. A country’s ratification of the CRC makes it significantly more likely to ban corporal punishment of students in subsequent years after the CRC is ratified. Similarly, increases in female political empowerment are associated with enhanced likelihood of corporal punishment bans, perhaps reflecting the fact that women are more likely to support a movement toward more progressive politics. No other measured covariates in our study significantly influenced the likelihood (or timing) of corporal punishment prohibitions.

This study has limitations. Our data on bans on corporal punishment in the school environment cannot inform which countries have enforced those bans, nor how they have done so. Without information on legal enforcement and monitoring, we cannot know the extent to which changes in laws have resulted in actual changes in practice. We also lack information on how attitudes, beliefs, and values may have shifted during the period of study, which makes it difficult to ascertain whether changes in attitudes toward corporal punishment preceded these legal changes globally, or whether legal changes preceded attitude shifts. These questions provide ripe opportunities for future study.

Despite growing research that corporal punishment in schools is harmful to children, the practice still remains stubborn to resistance in some areas of the world while decreasing in others. Our research provides insight into the factors that explain this variance in laws against physical punishment against children within the school setting. From this work, we draw several practical implications. We find that international agreements such as the CRC are extremely effective at setting precedent and encouraging the adoption of laws to protect children’s rights. However, they are not alone sufficient. Policymakers in countries with common-law systems will need to use different strategies if they hope to curtail the use of corporal punishment against children. Our research also suggests that increasing the involvement of women in government and in the political process will improve outcomes for the legal protection of children. Overall, this case study on the legality of corporal punishment in schools elucidates how progress toward the protection of the rights and dignity for children is possible at an international scale.

Notes

1 We note that some countries have a mix of different law systems (like the Philippines), but here we are talking about countries that are primarily one or the other or neither—which is most countries in the world. The Philippines, given its mix, is not coded as being a common-law country.
2 Of these, we could not find the exact date of the legal ban for 8.9 percent of observations. The legal language on the type and seriousness of ban was not specific enough for 4.2 percent of observations. We test the robustness of our results by excluding these observations and determine no difference in findings.
3 For countries with select missing years of a measure, we used a linear interpolation method for filling in those years of data based on the years prior and following. We also linearly extrapolated missing values for countries missing the most recent one to five years. Our regression results described below are robust to using an alternative construction of the data set without any imputation of missing values.
4 Seven countries were reported as having “mixed” legal systems incorporating some elements from common-law and other elements from different legal systems: Brunei Darussalam, Cyprus, Micronesia, Palau, Sudan, Vanuatu, and Yemen. We coded these countries as “1” for English legal origin, but our results were not sensitive to this choice.
5 We originally also included state religiosity, whether a state has an official religious affiliation, as a control variable; the variable was not statistically significant in any of our models and was dropped from our analysis to provide a more representative sample size.
6 To determine whether this model is appropriate for our data, we first test the proportional hazards assumption on the basis of Schoenfeld residuals after fitting the Cox proportional hazards model. Based on this test, we do not find evidence that the proportional hazards assumption is violated: χ2 (7) 11.6 and. p = 0.113. We find that a non-frailty model is preferred to the frailty model according to a likelihood ratio test comparing the variance components with and without shared frailty: Pr(χ2 > 0.19)/2 = 0.499 Gutierrez, Carter, and Drukker, 2001).

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Children’s rights in crisis

Multidisciplinary, transnational, and comparative perspectives

  • Figure 1.1Number of country legal bans on corporal punishment in schools 1970–2016. Note. According to our data collection, the very first country ban took place in 1970. The vertical red line represents the year in which the CRC became effective (1990). (Although the CRC was opened for signature in 1989, it only received enough signatures to become effective in 1990.)

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