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Introduction: Corporal Punishment in Kenyan Schools

On September 23, 1998, thirteen-year-old Anastacia Katunge was severely caned by the headteacher at her school, Masewani Primary, along with the rest of her class. Human Rights Watch interviewed Katunge and her parents, and examined the court file resulting from the assault. Katunge reported, "The teacher came to class. He asked for the list of the noise makers. When he was given the list, he punished the noise makers. Then he called me, and I went in front of the class. Then he started beating me. He told me to lie down and remove my cardigan. He caned me on the back-I was beaten with a cane the thickness of a gum tree stick, more than five times but not more than ten times. He did it in front of my classmates." At this point, she fainted: "When I woke up, I went to sit down on my chair, and I waited for the others to go home. When I went home, I was bleeding from the neck and had a bruise. There were bruises on my back that were bleeding, and on the hand. . . I reported what had happened to my father, and then I went with my father to the police station."

When Anastacia Katunge returned to school three days later, the headteacher told her to go home: "He said he would cane me again. He said that it would be the last day that I set foot in that school." Her parents-her mother was a teacher in the same-school faced similar threats. When her father, Willy Katunge, went to complain, the headteacher threatened to beat him too.

Anastacia Katunge's case was extraordinary, in part because of her parents' courage and initiative. The local educational authority shifted her, and her mother's teaching job, to a new school. The headteacher was ultimately charged with assault, although the case was still pending in Kiambu District Court at the time of this writing. But children who are injured at the hands of their teachers, generally can make no formal complaint at all without dire consequences. Those who protest ill-treatment are often forced to leave school altogether-effectively losing their chance for an education.

The Practice of Corporal Punishment

For most Kenyan children, violence is a regular part of the school experience. Teachers use caning, slapping, and whipping to maintain classroom discipline and to punish children for poor academic performance. The infliction of corporal punishment is routine, arbitrary, and often brutal. Bruises and cuts are regular by-products of school punishments, and more severe injuries (broken bones, knocked-out teeth, internal bleeding) are not infrequent. At times, beatings by teachers leave children permanently disfigured, disabled or dead.

Such routine and severe corporal punishment violates both Kenyan law and international human rights standards. According to the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, school corporal punishment is incompatible with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the world's most widely-ratified human rights treaty. Other human rights bodies have also found some forms of school-based corporal punishment to be cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and a practice that interferes with a child's right to receive an education and to be protected from violence.

Kenyan law restricts the use of school-based corporal punishment. According to the Education (School Discipline) Regulations, corporal punishment may only be administered for certain behavior, after a full inquiry, and in the presence of a witness, but not in the presence of other pupils. Only the headteacher is permitted to administer corporal punishment, and he or she must use a cane or strap of regulation size, hitting boys on the buttocks and girls on the palm of the hand. The headteacher may give no more than six strokes as punishment, and must keep a written record of all the proceedings. In 1996 the Director of Education reportedly issued a statement banning the imposition of corporal punishment, although no ban has ever been enforced, and the Education (School Dicipline) Regulations continue to authorize the punishment.

Illegal and severe forms of corporal punishment remain widespread, according to over two hundred Kenyan children interviewed by Human Rights Watch. Of the twenty primary and secondary schools visited by Human Rights Watch, only one school-reportedly the best secondary school in Kenya-administered corporal punishment in accordance with the guidelines of the Education (School Discipline) Regulations. In the twenty schools we visited, we found the use and abuse of corporal punishment were uniform: corporal punishment appeared to be equally widespread at urban schools and rural schools, at schools catering to the middle and upper middle classes and schools catering to the poor, and at schools in different regions, or with different ethnic and religious populations.

In Kenya, the most common method of corporal punishment involves teachers striking students with a "cane": generally an uneven wooden stick of two to three feet in length, with a diameter of approximately three-fourths of an inch. Some teachers also punish students by flogging them with whips made of rubber (from strips of old car tires), with heavier canes, or simply by slapping, kicking, or pinching. For the most part, boys are hit on the backside, while girls are hit on the palm of the hand. At times, however, children are beaten on other parts of the body: on the back, the arms, the legs, the soles of the feet, and sometimes even the face and head. Children are generally forced to kneel down (occasionally to lie down) in the front of the classroom before being caned or beaten in front of other students. At other times, teachers simply cane children on the spot, as they sit in their chairs.

Depending on the nature of the misbehavior of the child and the harshness of the teacher and school, a student might receive anywhere from two to twenty or more cane strokes at one time. At some schools, children told Human Rights Watch that they would witness incidents of caning only once or twice a week, and that students were generally given only two or three strokes at one time. Other children reported that they or others were caned on and off throughout the day, nearly every day, routinely receiving five or more strokes each time. We also heard scattered reports of children being beaten for inability to pay their school assessments, although we spoke with only one student who said that he personally had been punished for this reason.

Corporal punishment is used against students for a wide range of disciplinary infractions. Children may receive corporal punishment for coming to school late, missing school without permission (even for unanticipated illnesses), having a dirty or torn school uniform, rudeness, graffiti, fighting, stealing, drug use, and any form of disruptive classroom behavior (writing notes to other students, fidgeting, talking to another student, "noise making," and so on).

In addition, corporal punishment is widely used to punish unsatisfactory academic performance: in mathematics classes, for instance, it is not uncommon for teachers to strike children for giving the wrong answer to a problem (sometimes conceptualized by teachers as a disciplinary issue, on the theory that only children who have not paid attention give incorrect answers). In some classes and schools, teachers set target marks that students are supposed to achieve, and students who fail to reach the target are caned. The fact that a student's poverty and home life might contribute to his or her inability to comply with a teacher's wishes is generally not seen as grounds for excusing the child's behavior. Many teachers punish students who fail to complete their homework or learn their lessons, regardless of whether the children had the necessary books or materials, or opportunities to complete their homework.

Group punishments were widely reported: if a school did not perform well on national exams, for instance, an entire class might be caned regardless of the individual performance of each student. Similarly, if graffiti was found in a classroom, the whole class might be caned if the culprit could not be identified. If many children made noise, a large group of students might be caned simultaneously (with a different teacher caning each child), or many students might be caned in turn by one teacher.

Children also may be caned by numerous teachers at once. At several schools we visited, we were told by students that the usual punishment for "noise making" in class was for the culprit to be brought to the staff room and made to kneel or lie down and be caned or whipped by three to six teachers at the same time.

Minor injuries like bruising and swelling are the "normal" and routine result of corporal punishment. More serious injuries (large cuts; sprains; broken fingers) are less common, but many children we interviewed had either experienced such injuries or knew of other students who had. (Sprains and broken fingers can easily occur if a child reaches out his or her hand to ward off a cane, or moves a hand as the cane comes down). Extremely serious injuries (temporary or permanent hearing loss; teeth knocked out; broken wrists or collar bones; internal injuries requiring surgery) were rarer, but do occur; we interviewed several children who had either received such injuries or knew of others who had.

Children occasionally die as a result of corporal punishment, and several such deaths have been reported in the Kenyan press over the past two years. It was impossible, however, to get accurate statistics on such serious incidents: many severe beatings are never reported to government authorities or journalists, as children and parents fear retaliation from teachers and headteachers. Similarly, poor police and court record-keeping make it difficult to track down cases that are reported, as police records may simply describe a severe incident of corporal punishment as an assault or murder, without noting that it occurred in school.

Response and Redress

Human Rights Watch investigated several cases of serious injuries and deaths reported in the press and to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and confirmed the details of some of these cases. In the few cases we found that led to prosecutions, teachers tended to be acquitted or let off with minor fines. In almost all of the documented cases in which students died after being beaten, the teachers were acquitted because they had not known that the child suffered from a preexisting medical condition which made the child particularly vulnerable to injury.

The Ministry of Education appears to have done little to enforce the provisions of the Education (School Discipline) Regulations, which limit how corporal punishment may be imposed. Some senior level Ministry of Education officials told Human Rights Watch that the ministry discourages corporal punishment, even though the regulations allow it, and that Director of Education Elias Njoka issued a statement in 1996 banning the practice. Whether or not such a statement was issued-Human Rights Watch was unable to find any official record of it-a ban has certainly not been enforced and the practice appears to continue unabated. Still, senior officials within the ministry told us that the statement banning corporal punishment has not been withdrawn. In short, confusion exists at a high level in the Ministry of Education regarding its policy on corporal punishment.

Awareness-raising campaigns and training for practicing teachers on discipline and alternatives to corporal punishment in schools are virtually nonexistent. Instructors are rarely disciplined by headteachers or by the Ministry of Education, even for inflicting serious injuries on the children under their care. Headteachers who tolerate constant and severe corporal punishment inflicted by teachers are rarely censured, if ever. According to several instructors and parents interviewed by Human Rights Watch, corruption is rampant in the Kenyan educational bureaucracy, and teachers at times receive sought-after placements if they are willing to pay bribes. Similarly, abuses are hushed up by the payment of bribes.

The Kenyan Teachers' Services Commission has the power to suspend, transfer, or fire teachers. Its investigatory branch is lethargic when it comes to looking into abuses related to corporal punishment. Although the Kenyan press has given extensive coverage to incidents of serious injury caused by corporal punishment in the last few years, the deputy director of the Teacher's Services Commission told Human Rights Watch that the Commission receives a complaint about excessive caning only once every few years, and virtually never disciplines teachers for caning. He insisted that "most of the caning is per the regulations."

The judicial system is generally not a practical alternative for redress for school corporal punishment. Since most families cannot afford attorneys, they have little access to the courts, or prospects prevailing in legal action ifthey do. Furthermore, the judicial system is not strong, with judicial processes slow, and judgments difficult to enforce.

Perhaps most disturbing, Human Rights Watch received numerous reports, from children and parents, of serious retaliation against people who challenged severe corporal punishment. According to many interviewees, complaining about excessive punishments might lead to more severe punishments in the future, with punishments being inflicted on siblings or cousins of the child whose parents complained, as well as on the child himself. Some parents reported that they themselves were threatened with violence when they protested mistreatment of their children.

Some children told of being forced to change schools to escape from vengeful teachers, and several headteachers told Human Rights Watch that when parents came in to complain that their children had been caned, they told the parents to remove their children from the school if they were unhappy about the caning. In effect, as several headteachers acknowledged, children raising complaints about corporal punishment faced giving up school altogether, as transferring to another school after departure for "disciplinary reasons"-refusing to accept the imposition of corporal punishment- can be close to impossible.

Corporal Punishment as Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

School corporal punishment can be a form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and it is akin to the use of beatings to punish detainees in prisons or police stations. In each case, state agents make use of violence to discipline and punish people under their supervision and control, and the violence is inflicted with the intention of causing physical pain and humiliation. In schools, the state agents are teachers rather than prison guards or police officers, and the victims are schoolchildren, rather than detainees. Many children are at risk of being physically hurt or psychologically damaged by the use of violent punishments. Since children are both physically weaker and psychologically more vulnerable than adult detainees, they may be at even greater risk. But while today it is widely accepted that corporal punishment of prisoners constitutes a human rights violation, many still hold to the belief that corporal punishment of children has an educative and instructive purpose, without which a child will not be able to learn.

Many international human rights instruments prohibit the use of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. These documents include the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

The fact that many teachers and parents (and, indeed, some students) believe that corporal punishment serves a genuine pedagogical function does not diminish the ways in which it can be cruel and degrading. In Kenya, Human Rights Watch encountered many dedicated teachers who spoke of their sincere belief in the necessity of corporal punishment as an educational tool. Many parents with whom we spoke supported the teachers' actions. Nonetheless, Human Rights Watch is categorically opposed to the use of corporal punishment against children in schools, however that violence is rationalized. The organization calls for the abolition of the practice and the repeals of laws and regulations that authorize it.

Not only can school corporal punishment be a form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of children, it can also impair the child's enjoyment of the right to education, and may undermine the purpose of education as enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The convention is the most widely ratified international human rights treaty; Kenya ratified it in 1990. The Committee on the Rights of the Child, which is responsible for making authoritative interpretations of the rights contained within the convention, and for reviewing the compliance of states parties, has stated categorically that all forms of corporal punishment are incompatible with the protections given to children under the convention.

While teachers and parents may feel it is necessary for a child to experience pain in order to learn, a significant amount of research has shown to the contrary-that the use of corporal punishment may hinder learning, encourage or lead children to drop out of school, and generally undermine the purposes of education as articulated in article 29 of the convention. Article 29 states that education shall be directed towards the development of the child's mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential; the development of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms; and preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace and tolerance. The use of corporal punishment against children by their teachers, and the lesson taught to children through the use of violence, may undermine the very purpose of education as articulated in the convention.

The Committee on the Rights of the Child has criticized governments for permitting corporal punishment in schools (both public and private), and the committee and its members have stated repeatedly that corporal punishment violates the fundamental principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In its official report of its seventh session in November 1994, the committee stated that "[i]n the framework of its mandate, the Committee has paid particular attention to the child's right to physical integrity. In the same spirit, it has stressed that corporal punishment of children is incompatible with the Convention and has often proposed the revision of existing legislation, as well as the development of awareness and education campaigns, to prevent . . . the physical punishment of children."

Furthermore, the committee members have argued that the difficulties in drawing sharp lines between acceptable and unacceptable forms of corporal punishment require a total ban on the practice, since even ostensibly mild forms of corporal punishment in practice often become severely abusive. In a concluding statement to the general discussion on "Children's Rights in the Family" in October 1994, committee member Thomas Hammarberg of Sweden noted that "[c]ertain States have tried to distinguish between the correction of children and excessive violence. In reality the dividing line between the two is artificial. It is very easy to pass from one stage to another."

Other Forms of Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment in Kenyan Schools

Cruel, inhuman or degrading practices in Kenyan schools are not restricted to corporal punishment. Human Rights Watch encountered several reports of other forms of punishments that are arguably forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. For example, in many schools teachers force students to kneel for long periods at the front of the classroom as a form of punishment. This is intended to shame students, and does so; one headteacher told us that he discouraged the practice in his school because kneeling for long periods on uneven concrete or dirt floors sometimes also leads to swollen, bruised, or cut knees and legs.

Similarly, many schools and teachers make students engage in physical labor as a punishment, distinct from ordinary classroom chores which all students might be called on to perform: digging trenches, "slashing" grass, or uprooting tree stumps are all commonly cited punishments. Some teachers assign other forms of physical activity as a punishment, forcing students to run around the school compound repeatedly, for instance. Still other teachers require students to clean the school toilets as punishment.

These assignments are not necessarily cruel, inhuman or degrading. In practice, however, they can and often do amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. If such assignments are given out irresponsibly as punishments, they can be excessively humiliating or damaging: for instance, several hours of heavy manual labor or compulsory running in the equatorial sun can cause children to collapse from heat and exhaustion. Cleaning toilets often means scrubbing filthy pit latrines with no detergents, no protective gloves, and no running water with which to wash. All of these punishments pose health risks, and are also experienced by students as humiliating. If sufficiently severe, they constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

Historical and Cultural Context

Various forms of corporal punishment (and other punishments like manual labor) have a long pedigree in Kenya. Many Kenyans told Human Rights Watch that physical chastisement has long been accepted in Kenyan homes. TheKenyan government school system arose in the days of British colonial government, and adopted nineteenth-century British traditions of school discipline, including the widespread use of the cane.

Most adult Kenyans were caned frequently when they were children, and many Kenyans believe firmly in the validity of the Biblical precept, "Spare the rod and spoil the child." A high level of domestic violence against women and children is a constant concern for Kenyan rights groups, and school corporal punishment occurs in this context. One primary school headteacher told Human Rights Watch firmly that violence is "what the African child understands, and women too. They have to be beaten."

Although most Kenyans we met told Human Rights Watch that corporal punishment should never be so severe as to cause lasting injury to a child, few of those interviewed perceived corporal punishment as a human rights issue, or even as a major cause for concern. This is changing, as several Kenyan rights groups have added corporal punishment to their advocacy agendas, and as newspapers like the Daily Nation have begun a concerted effort to investigate and report on cases of severe beatings in schools. Likewise, top officials in the Kenyan Ministry of Education, including the minister himself, have begun to focus increased attention on children's rights issues, singling out corporal punishment as an area of particular concern.

Nonetheless, awareness of the problems associated with corporal punishment is low, and children, parents, or teachers who complain about corporal punishment still run a serious risk of facing ridicule or retaliation. This causes most to remain silent except in the face of particularly appalling abuses.

School corporal punishment in Kenya has a high degree of cultural acceptance, even approval. Although some teachers inflict severe forms of corporal punishment on students out of deliberate cruelty, probably the great majority of teachers genuinely intend to "educate" children by caning or whipping them. To the extent that children are seriously injured, many Kenyans are willing to write such incidents off as tragic exceptions in a generally acceptable system, the result of the occasional sadistic teacher or of unfortunate but unavoidable accidents. Some teachers dismissed abuses by noting that serious injuries usually occurred only if a student disobediently thrust out an arm to ward off the cane, and thus ended up with a broken wrist or similar injury. This was viewed as the equivalent of a self-inflicted injury. Others said that authorities should not hold teachers responsible for injuring or killing children who had preexisting medical conditions that made them particularly susceptible to physical punishment, because other students could have withstood the abuse.

Poverty helps to create the conditions which lead to the imposition of school corporal punishment. Parents and communities pay for uniforms, textbooks, building fees (repair, maintenance and construction of school buildings), and activities fees under cost-sharing arrangements between the Kenyan government and local communities. Many poor families struggle to keep their children in school. Their children may face harassment from teachers for wearing torn and dirty uniforms. Instructors may punish students who fail to complete their homework or learn their lessons, yet the children may not have necessary books or school materials, sufficient nutrition, or opportunities or facilities to complete their homework after they leave school. Schools themselves may be crowded, with at times more than fifty students per teacher in a small classroom. These conditions do not facilitate learning or classroom management. While they may explain why teachers feel it is necessary to impose corporal punishment, they do not excuse such actions.


The research for this report was conducted in Kenya from May 2-15, 1999, by a five-person team of Human Rights Watch staff and consultants. This is Human Rights Watch's second report on children in Kenya, following our 1997 report, Juvenile Injustice: Police Abuse and Detention of Street Children in Kenya. For this report, Human Rights Watch visited twenty different government schools spread throughout six different provinces: Nairobi, Central Province, Eastern Province, Rift Valley Province, Nyanza Province, and the Coast Province. We visited no privateschools, but did visit several schools "sponsored" by religious institutions, which meant, in practice, that there was a strong religious component to the curriculum, although all of the teachers were provided by the government and followed the standard national curriculum. Some enrolled mostly children from Christian families; others were largely Muslim. We visited a cross-section of Kenyan schools: some were urban, others extremely rural; some were academically poor, others among the top-performing schools in the nation. Some catered to wealthy students, while others were in impoverished communities.

We received the permission of the Minister of Education to visit schools of our choosing. Ministry and local education office officials accompanied us to five of the twenty schools we visited. We went to the remainder of the schools on our own. Seventeen of the schools visited by Human Rights Watch were primary schools and three were secondary schools. Most of the two hundred children we interviewed were between the ages of ten and eighteen. All children were interviewed outside of the presence of teachers and other government officials, and some were interviewed outside of the school setting completely. Children were interviewed individually, and also in small groups, in English or with the use of our local translators. For the most part, the children's stories were quite consistent from region to region, and from school to school. Children interviewed individually and children interviewed in groups also gave us consistent information. To protect their identities, the names of most children cited in this report have been changed.

At every school we visited, we also interviewed teachers and headteachers or deputy headteachers. When possible, we conducted interviews with parents of schoolchildren and with local government officials (education officers, magistrates, prosecutors, and police). In addition to these field interviews, we spent several days in Nairobi, conducting background interviews with education specialists, representatives of local human rights and children's advocacy groups, teacher's union representatives, and officials at the Ministry of Education, including the Minister of Education.

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