One of the most challenging aspects of NGO work is to learn to pick your battles: to know when to insist on a point and when to drop it; when to challenge the government and when to work with them. We are witnessing these decisions being taken every day, and it is fascinating to see how and where the strategic priorities and battle lines are drawn.
The Legal Assistance Centre (LAC) has been very involved in drafting Namibia’s comprehensive Child Care and Protection Bill, which is about to go to the Parliament. It has been twenty years in the making, so the patience and perseverance of the people pushing for it is admirable.
LAC is also involved (by way of providing research help and materials to the prosecutor*) in a case against teachers from a private school who, against the express prohibition of the parents, physically chastised a student.
Namibia has an unfortunate culture of violence, and it is hard to see whether the prevalence of corporal punishment of children is the cause or the consequence of it. A colleague told me that he was speaking to a young teacher, who seemed to care for the children and her job, but who didn’t think twice about hitting the students. According to her, it was the only way to maintain discipline.
Namibian courts have recently decided that public officials, such as teachers in state schools, police and social workers are not permitted to use violence against children. This prohibition against corporal punishment is now being written also into the law by the Child Care and Protection Bill. But I was very surprised, when I first read the Bill, to find out that the Bill is NOT outlawing corporal punishment altogether. Parents are still allowed to use violence against their children.
I raised this with our boss Dianne, who is not only the person most involved with the drafting of the Bill, but also extremely skilled at the very kind of strategic thinking I mentioned at the beginning of the rant.
Dianne explained that it would have been futile, in the current political climate, to push for an outright ban on corporal punishment. It would not have been accepted. So instead the Bill does something quite clever.
First, it specifies that corporal punishment of children must always respect the “dignity” of the child, as guaranteed by the Constitution. It is hoped that not only will this significantly limit the type and severity of chastisement that can be meted out by parents, but with time the constitutional notion of “dignity” will evolve and at some point a court will find that ANY violence against a child infringes the child’s dignity.
Secondly, the Bill obligates the Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare to develop programs to teach parents about non-violent forms of discipline. This is something LAC is already involved in: practical workshops to teach Namibians (teachers, social workers, police, nurses, nannies …) about alternatives to hitting children. Namibians are not mean or evil people. They spank their kids because that is the only thing they know how to do when kids misbehave.
So the Child Care and Protection Bill appears to provide (hopefully) an effective compromise between a progressive legal framework and practical effort to effect change on the ground. If only I could also learn to find this kind of balance between idealism and realism … Watching what the people at LAC do is, I find, a good start.
* Amici curiae (“friends of the court” – third party interveners in litigation) are not permitted in Namibia, something LAC is thinking of challenging before the courts in its own right.