Report on the work of EPOCH
We recently received Occasional Newsletter No 8, February 2000 and Bulletin No 4 from EPOCH (End Physical Punishment of Children). There were many items of interest including a report on the very successful visit of Peter Newell, International Children's Rights Advocate, to this country. The Ministry of Youth Affairs funded the visit and a number of other non-government organisations helped organise events so people could hear Peter speak. The key event was "The First Decade" a conference held in Auckland to mark the 10th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention has been signed by all but two countries in the world and has helped make children and their rights more visible, often being quoted in the courts. Peter Newell pointed out the importance of non-government organisations as lobbyists to put pressure on governments about children's issues they are either not tackling, or not tackling constructively. Peter gave presentations in both Auckland and Wellington focusing on ending physical punishment of children. A workshop in South Auckland was organised by the South Auckland Family Violence Prevention network and the local Strengthening Families Coordinating Committee. A point made by Peter is that physical punishment is a family violence issue but that where physical punishment is concerned, zero tolerance suddenly becomes controversial. He sees the imperative for prohibiting all corporal punishment of children as one of human rights. This is in addition to other reasons such as the extent of legalised violence towards children, the short and long term dangers of hitting children, the risk of escalation and the place of physical punishment in the development of violent attitudes and actions. Another point he made is that we need to help politicians and others to understand that a law change (the repeal of Section 59 of the Crimes Act) is not aimed at punishing parents but is in itself an educational tool. As the Newsletter points out Peter's visit was very timely as the Government is preparing its second report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child. One of the recommendations in the Committee's first report on New Zealand's compliance was that Section 59 of the Crimes Act be repealed.
Another item of interest I will quote directly:
In North and South, February 2000, Deborah Coddington's deeply distressing article Discipline to Death raises numerous child protection issues. She challenges New Zealanders to examine their attitudes about the use of physical punishment and the need to change our law. Deborah points out:
On average, six to eight children are beaten to death each year by their caregivers. If that number of racehorses were beaten to death by their trainers, New Zealanders would be outraged to the point of calling for a ban on whips in racing. But we cling to a perceived right of parents and caregivers to hit children.
The following report from the newsletter by Megan Heatherington is quoted
Children's Rights and Religion at a Crossroads 21-24 November 1999, Nazareth, Israel
This international conference marked the 10th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and was organised by Defence for Children International (Israel Section) and Wi'am Palestine. I attended to further my research into why some religious communities support the practice of corporal punishment of children, and also to explore other children's rights issues that are relevant to New Zealand's religious communities. International children's rights and religious organisations were widely represented. Keynote addresses were given by children fast, Palestine and Israel.
The conference highlighted the struggles that many children endure as a result of their families' faith. Religion can bring out the best and the worst in humankind. While many religions have played critical roles in protecting and caring for children, history also tells a shameful story of religious culture which condoned and supported child sacrifice, genital mutilation, exorcism rituals which result in injury or death, parental consent to child rape by religious ministers, capital and corporal punishment of children, and refusal to allow life-saving medical treatment. These practices are not just confined to the history books, as some children are still being subjected to such treatment today. An American fundamentalist pastor is currently serving a prison sentence for her part in the 'accidental' death of a toddler who was given a prolonged spanking, and died from haemorrhage and shock.
Kathleen Marshall of the University of Glasgow presented a paper which explored the respective roles of the state and the family in the protection of children against the background of a variety of religious beliefs. There are few opportunities for children and young people to learn about other faiths. Children don't choose their faith; they are born into it. If children do not wish to go to religious services, they are often told that God sees them as being bad. Marshall asked why it is that children's rights are so often seen as being subversive to family values - surely the children's developing values are part of the family's values? The 'Religious Right' in the USA opposes the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child on several grounds, one of them being the fear that the USA might seek to prohibit the corporal punishment of students in schools, and of children in homes.
Marshall also held a workshop on "Punishment, Abuse and Religion". Individuals and church bodies often quote scripture when they are brought before the court on assault charges but there are different attitudes within faiths and traditions and there is no unanimous agreement between religious groups as to whether corporal punishment of children is permissible. The case for removing the parental right to use corporal punishment on children was supported strongly by many of the speakers and conference participants.
A "Declaration of Principles" is now being drawn up which will lay the
foundation for an international coalition in support of children's rights
relating to religion or belief.
(The HSNZ supports the work of EPOCH. Their website - http://epochnz.virtualave.net - contains up to date articles, the latest newsletter, and the resource kit.)
Maureen Hoy was Secretary of the Humanist Society of N.Z.