When child abuse is more social norm than crime

Sherif Tarek , Sunday 9 Nov 2014

Beating kids as punishment is widespread in Egypt - but what are the consequences, and how can it be stopped?

Two female students in a Cairo primary school on the first day of the ongoing school year (Photo: Mai Shaheen)

Every week, Ramy Latchinian gives a free taekwondo class to underprivileged children at his gym in the upscale Cairo district of Maadi – and he struggles to keep them under control.

The decorated master knows instructing kids can be challenging, but he finally realised what made this class extra hard when one of the students suggested how he could better control the hyperactive, disobedient group.

"Why don't you just hit them, coach?" said a 12-year-old boy, after repeated attempts from Latchinian to talk the students into behaving. "This is how they are used to being treated. They won't do as told unless you beat them."

Having spent most of his life in western countries, and living in Cairo since 2008, the Egyptian-American instructor didn't comprehend the situation at first. When he asked the kid why he thought roughing up his colleagues was a remedy, Latchinian was stunned to learn that it was the everyday treatment they received at school.

"They told me stories about how they are physically abused daily, not to mention verbally assaulted," Latchinian said. "When I asked them how many schoolmasters hit them, there was only one who didn't, a female math teacher. Even service employees sometimes beat them to force them to clean up classrooms.

"They told me about one boy who had his head cut open when a teacher hit him with a baton. A girl, a student of mine, suffered a seriously swollen arm when she was beaten in a similar manner."

All the children at the special taekwondo sessions for underprivileged youths, aged seven to 12, didn't want to talk or reveal their names out of fear they would be beaten more by their teachers for speaking out.

"When I asked them what they do when teachers strike them, they told me they hide under benches and place their bags on their heads to protect themselves," recalled Latchinian. "It was a staggering answer, especially since I only asked them to see what their parents do about it."

His students are enrolled at the public Degla Primary School, located near the posh Cairo American College in Maadi. They come from poor families; most of their fathers are doormen in the neighbourhood.

Many Egyptian parents would probably say that corporal punishment – whether in schools or at home – is an essential part of child rearing and turning them into disciplined and well-mannered adults.

Latchinian says he was "shocked" when he met his students' parents to tell them about the abuse he saw.

"A father told me 'what's wrong with that?' while others seemed to accept or even endorse it for the sake of their children's manners," he said.

But the parents' reaction isn't unusual.

In 2011, parents in a village in the Nile Delta governorate of Gharbiya staged a protest to call for the release of primary teacher Magdy El-Shaer, who had been arrested for appearing in a video beating students with a ruler on different parts of their bodies. The parents said they beat their kids and that they wanted El-Shaer to spank them some more to straighten them up.

Some parents will take action against teachers only when the beating is seriously harmful.

Latchinian's student who was beaten on the arm at Degla Primary School says her teachers stopped beating her after her father threatened to file a police report.

Orphans most tormented

While parents might step in when their kids get injured or severely beaten, orphans at the same school are mostly at the mercy of their teachers.

The vast Awlady (My Kids) Orphanage is right next to Degla Primary School and sends many of its orphans there. According to Latchinian's students, it's the orphans who bear the brunt of the daily corporal punishment.

The orphanage's general manager, Nagwa Hamed, confirmed that children in her establishment "get bruises and sustain injuries on a regular basis as a result of beatings at the hands of teachers."

She brought in six kids – aged from seven to 12 – who had all been beaten that day in the school.

Among the students, who all looked terrified, were a girl with finger marks on her swollen right cheek and another with red welts on her back. When asked who beat them, they mentioned some of the same teachers that Latchinian's students had referred to while speaking of their daily suffering.

When asked why they were smacked, they cited a forgotten book and a request to go to the bathroom, among other reasons.

The beating of the six kids is deemed "mild" in comparison with many previous cases, stressed Nefisa, a senior psychologist at the private orphanage.

A while ago, she said, "one girl was lashed over her eye and along the cheek with a plastic electricity hose and sustained an ugly injury. She came to us immediately and we filed a report with the police against the female teacher who hit her."

Nefisa couldn't recall any other cases that were taken that seriously.

And not only has Awlady Orphanage done little in terms of legal action to stop the beating of its kids, but a good number of its staff believe, like many parents, that physical punishment is important to discipline naughty children.

"There should be disciplinary action for children who are not obedient and wreaking havoc here or in school," said Basma, one of the orphanage's female supervisors. "And it's not like you beat them to death."

Nefisa explained that supervisors at Awlady Orphanage are allowed to "lightly beat" kids when needed, as per a condition in their contracts. "Sometimes a new supervisor might have a short fuse, so she will beat a girl harder than permitted. I can excuse newcomers twice, but afterwards action will be taken against them."

In September a manager of a Giza orphanage appeared in a leaked video violently beating a group of children. He was sentenced to three years in prison. Other similar cases have also been reported, raising further questions over the treatment of orphans.

Orphans are estimated at 10,000 nationwide – in 148 orphanages and 83 schools that both shelter and teach young orphans – according to official estimates from Egypt's ministry of social solidarity. The number of undocumented street kids would raise the figures much higher.

Nefisa assured that "only a light smack on the shoulder or the backhand" is allowed in Awlady Orphanage. "Nothing like how some people savagely beat children, like in the [Degla Primary] school," she claimed.

'Inhumane, illegal – yet needed'

Hanging on a wall in the principal's office at Degla Primary School is a sign that reads: "Teachers are people you can count on." When speaking of how they treat their students, however, teachers clearly have mixed emotions.

Principal Khaled Tantawy and other teachers find no shame in admitting that they beat children, yet in the same breath they stress that it's "inhumane." They think it's the only choice they have "under the circumstances."

"If you had over 50 pupils in one class and they were all disobedient, that would be the only way to correct them," said Tantawy. "When kids are used to being beaten, they won't respond to any other methods. This is what almost all our students are like, whether from the orphanage or those who have parents, though orphans are more undisciplined."

This reporter was brought by the principal to a crowded third-grade classroom and then left alone with over 50 students.

In less than 10 minutes, students continuously talked out loud all at once, walked on benches, beat each other, threw water at each other, complained to this reporter about some of these acts and repeatedly asked to go to the bathroom in an apparent attempt to skip class. Verbal attempts to control the room from this reporter – who's not qualified to be a teacher – mostly failed.

Mohamed Abdullah, a gymnastics instructor who also acts as an Arabic teacher, pointed out that a lack of facilities and activities makes children restless in the classroom. "The school is so small, we don't have a proper playground to let them play football for instance, so they use up their energy during classes in a negative way."

"I know beating isn't good, but when they go wild I spank them. It's the way we were raised after all," Abdullah said.

Pupils are beaten when they disturb a class, forget their homework, beat or tease a colleague, disrespect a teacher or sabotage facilities, among other reasons. Teachers react to students' misbehaviour on their own accord; there are no clear rules concerning how to deal with such cases, explained Tantawy.

"We don't like beating children, but we all do it for their best interest, to make sure they learn and behave. We don't do it to browbeat students into private tuition like many other teachers. Most students here are orphans anyways."

"I wish there was a better way but there isn't. I know it's inhumane and illegal, yet it's needed," the principal said.

Teachers have been convicted in Egypt for beating students on different occasions. In one infamous incident in 2008, Haitham Nabil, a math teacher in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, killed a primary student when he kicked him in the chest. He was sentenced to six years in prison for manslaughter.

Degla is one of 15,755 public primary schools across the nation, in which over 9 million students are registered, almost half the country's students, according to 2013-2014 statistics provided by the education ministry.

"If you want to stop beatings in schools, you have to fix the child raising culture and the whole system, of which teachers are just a tiny part," said Tantawy.

Vicious circles

Biological families or substitute parents – whether foster parents or orphanage supervisors – along with teaching staff, community members and the mass media all affect children and shape their behaviour, explained Eman Dewdar, a psychologist specialising in children and adolescents.

"All four channels are connected to each other. Parents should be in contact with teachers to follow up on kids' conditions. The community must be aware of how to treat children properly and that will be promoted by the mass media," she said.

"In Egypt, we have some individual efforts to fight violence against children amid a lack of awareness or action on all four levels; there are no clear healthy standards or rules for child treatment."

According to Dewdar, physical punishment usually poses as the easiest way for parents, caregivers and teachers to correct kids. Pressure from daily life also acts as a catalyst.

"Teachers in schools or supervisors in orphanages sometimes take their anger out on kids and there are no pre-emptive procedures. They should undergo tests to verify they are psychologically fit to deal with children, and of course receive the requisite training."

"We have nothing of that [in Egypt]. I regularly give lectures to orphanage supervisors and teachers on child psychology, and I know that most of them are anything but competent."

Orphanage supervisors are inspected monthly, said Aziza Amar, head of the Central Administration for Social Care, a body affiliated with the ministry of social solidarity that is responsible for orphanages nationwide.

She assures that child beating is totally prohibited, but when asked about kids who get spanked in orphanages and if there are possible additional measures to preempt such incidents, Amar took a swipe at the media.

"Some supervisors abide by the no-beating rule while others don't, which is normal. Everyone makes mistakes; it is the media that blows things out of proportion," she said in a defensive tone. "Those who raise their hands against kids get salary sanctions, deductions or even fired."

A spokesman for the education ministry, Hani Kamal, said in a very brief statement that the ministry's governorate departments periodically send guides to schools who are supposed to advise teachers on how to appropriately deal with young students, among other duties.

When taekwondo coach Latchinian filed a complaint at the education ministry over the beating of his students at Degla Primary School, the ministry sent representatives to the school who took down students' testimonies. No action was immediately taken, as the kids say teachers still spank them.

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) says it is impossible to accurately measure child abuse due to a lack of data, as many incidents are never reported. The organisation's website estimates that 500 million to 1.5 billion kids globally are subjected to violence every year.

Children in Egypt are estimated at more than one third of the over 90 million population.

To communicate with kids, Dewdar says, "you need to go down to their level, you don't treat them as grown-ups. You punish them by depriving them of recreational activities, by isolating them for a while and the punishment should be equivalent to their wrongdoing."

"You reward them when they do something good. You treat them all equally and always engage them whether in studying or other activities. You don't beat them. You don't make them feel they're outcasts."

Babies are responsive to violence from their very early days onwards, she says.

"In the first six years of their lives, verbal or physical abuse can cause sleeping problems, a lack of self-confidence and fear. Afterwards, it can result in difficulty focusing and in aggressive behavior," Dewdar said.

"They will know they cannot retaliate against the source of power, parents at home and teachers at school, so they will take their frustration out on objects such as toys, or a peer, a colleague, for example. They will be restless in general and hard to control."

Even worse, she explains, is that kids who are often beaten are more prone to sexual abuse. "Their bodies have already been violated, and consequently become less valuable to them. With many people beating them, they might not feel something is wrong if someone touches them the wrong way."

Children that are beaten can turn into adults with a lack of self-esteem or decision-making abilities, problems that will increase according to the frequency of their beatings. "They could turn into violent persons, thugs or sexual harassers. Violence generates more violence."

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