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Physical Punishment of Children

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Time to End the Defence of Reasonable Chastisement in the UK, USA and Australia

As at March 2016, 49 states had reformed their laws to clearly prohibit all corporal punishment of children (United Nations 1989) in all settings, including the home (Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children, n.d.) By January 2017 this number had reached 52. As the trend moves towards abolition, it is not an acceptable position for the United Kingdom (UK), the United States of America (USA) and Australia (Poulsen, 2015) to remain missing from that list. Whilst they are, effectively, a child (a person aged under 18 years of age), is the only person in all three countries that it is legal to hit. This article seeks to restate arguments in this area in a simple way to restart the debate in a modern context where understanding of child abuse is perhaps more widespread than it ever was in the past. On 20 October 2014 a report, Living on a Railway Line, was launched in the UK to mark the 25th anniversary of the signing of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which took place on 20 November 1989 (Rowland, 2014). It recommended removing the defence of reasonable chastisement in relation to the punishment of children. This article seeks to build on that agenda in a comparative context taking a three way perspective from the UK, the USA and Australia. It concludes that moves to prevent family violence are progressive but the position of a society where physical punishment of children is permitted yet child abuse is forbidden is not a tenable one. Reducing the number of cases of child abuse must begin with a clear message from society that physical punishment of children, whatever the circumstances, is unacceptable. The situation is serious enough to introduce aspirational legislation to remove justifications for physical punishment of children with the aim of modifying behaviour within society.

Affiliations: 1: Honorary Professor, The University of Salford, UK; Consultant in Paediatric Emergency Medicine, The Pennine Acute Hospitals NHS Trust, UK; Churchill Fellow, The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, UK; Board Member, M’Lop Tapang, Cambodia ; 2: Queen’s Counsel in London, Leeds and Darwin; Chair of the Research and Research Training Committee, Charles Darwin University; Member of the Research group on Fundamental Rights and Constitutionalism at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, ; 3: Senior Injury Prevention Specialist, Phoenix Children’s Hospital; Founder and Chair, Arizona Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Consortium


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