Life in a School

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We usually think of schooling as a positive learning experience. However, sometimes this is not always the case. As recent news reports in the Hindu and on NDTV from India remind us, unfortunately for some children in low-income countries, schooling can be a nasty, brutal and short experience. They may suffer physical abuse, humiliation and be forced to endure the worst possible learning environments, while returning for the same punishment day after day after day.

 Take a look at these numbers:

  1. A survey by UNICEF in Pakistan a decade ago found that 88 percent of kids surveyed had been physically punished in the week before the survey – not one child reported never having been beaten. These beatings can be quite severe, often leading to serious injuries, and in some cases, death. 
  2. In 2005, UNICEF conducted a follow-up study in Pakistan. All of the 3,582 children interviewed said that they had received corporal punishment. An astonishing seven percent of children reported sustaining serious injuries as a result of this punishment.
  3. The numbers are nearly as bad in India and other South Asian Countries (a 2001 summary of findings from numerous studies is here).
  4. In Kenya, a joint report by the Teachers Service Commission and the Centre for Rights Education and Awareness in 2009 showed that 12,660 girls were sexually abused by male teachers between 2003 and 2007.

It is promising that the law is changing for the better in at least some countries:


These situations mirror schooling systems in the United States in the early 20th Century. In April 1913, writing for McClure’s Magazine (thanks to Lant Pritchett for
the reference), Helen M. Todd asked:

It has always been the assumption that bad industrial conditions are responsible for child labor. Is there another powerful but indirect influence that is also responsible? Does the factor, heavy as the tax is that it takes from children, represent an escape from something that is even more dreaded?” Part of the reason, she discovers, is corporal punishment:

“In 1909 I took 500 children out of over twenty factories in all parts of Chicago, and asked them this question:"

If your father had a good job and you didn’t have to work, which would you rather do—go to school or work in a factor?

"Of 500 children between the ages of fourteen and sixteen, 412 said that they would rather work in a factor than go to school."

Among the many reasons given, the phrases: “They ain’t always pickin’ on you because you don’t know things in a factory; the boss he never hits yet, er slaps yer face, er pulls yer ears,” occur repeatedly. Todd writes about a boy who has been told that he is not old enough to work, and must go back to school:

“Upon being told that he was not old enough to work, and must go to school, he took his pay envelope and crawled behind a large pile of dusty wrapping-paper and boards
in the corner of the room. When we had removed the barrier, piece by piece, in order to reach him, we found him pressed close against the wall, weeping miserably.
As I walked home with him, I asked him: “Don’t you like to go to school?”
“No,” he answered; “I want my job,” and began weeping afresh.
“What,” I said in despair, remembering the dark, damp basement in which I had found him, “what is it you like so much about your job?”
“The boss,” he answered, “don’t never hit me.”
“Did they hit you at school?”
“What for?”
“They hits ye if ye don’t learn, and they hits ye if ye whisper, and they hits ye if ye have string in yer pocket, and they hits ye if yer seat squeaks, and they hits
ye if ye scrape yer feet, and they hits ye if ye don’t stan’ up in time, and they hits ye if yer late, and they hits ye if ye forget the page.”
His voice trailed off into silence, and he stood before me with bent head, his face glazed with weeping, at bay, like one of his own little stockyard sheep being
driven down into the shambles.

(You can read the full article courtesy of over here.)

It is entirely possible that corporal punishment in schools reflects an overall mentality where physical punishment is viewed as part and parcel of growing up, and children may actually be in a safer environment in school than at home. But this for me makes an even stronger argument for why schools must be a safe and enjoyable haven for children whose daily life involves trials and tribulations that most of us could not imagine in a worst case scenario. Physical abuse and harsh conditions in schools may be a contained problem—restricted to some teachers and some environments, but it is still very, very sad. And what really does not make much sense is that even as we understand the policy instruments that can be used to get children into schools, we in the development community are not as equally focused on ensuring that their school lives are safe and secure. 

The image used at the top of this blog entry ("Should she be hiding?" ) comes from Simone D. McCourtie of the World Bank and is produced with permission.


Jishnu Das

Professor, Georgetown University

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