Corporal punishment

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  Countries that have explicitly abolished all forms of corporal punishment of children.
Legality of corporal punishment in Europe:
  Corporal punishment prohibited in schools and the home
  Corporal punishment prohibited in schools only

Corporal punishment is a form of physical punishment that involves the deliberate infliction of pain as retribution for an offence, or for the purpose of disciplining or reforming a wrongdoer, or to deter attitudes or behaviour deemed unacceptable. The term usually refers to methodically striking the offender with an implement, whether in judicial, domestic, or educational settings.

Corporal punishment is defined by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child as:

"any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light."[1]

Corporal punishment may be divided into three main types:

Corporal punishment of minors within domestic settings is lawful in all 50 of the United States and, according to a 2000 survey, is widely approved by parents.[2] It has been officially outlawed in 32 countries.[3]

Corporal punishment in school has been outlawed in Canada, Kenya, Korea, South Africa, New Zealand and nearly all of Europe except France. It remains legal in some parts of the world, including 19 states of the USA.[4]

Judicial corporal punishment has virtually disappeared from the western world but remains in force in many parts of Africa and Asia.

There are various national and international campaigns against corporal punishment.


History of corporal punishment

Corporal punishment was recorded as early as c. 10th Century BC in Book of Proverbs attributed to Solomon:

He that spareth the rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him correcteth him betimes.[5]
Withhold not correction from a child: for if thou strike him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and deliver his soul from hell.[6]

It was certainly present in classical civilisations, being used in Greece, Rome, and Egypt for both judicial and educational discipline.[7] Some states gained a reputation for using such punishments cruelly; Sparta, in particular, used them as part of a disciplinary regime designed to build willpower and physical strength.[8] Although the Spartan example was extreme, corporal punishment was possibly the most frequent type of punishment. In the Roman Empire, the maximum penalty that a Roman citizen could receive under the law was 40 "lashes" or "strokes" with a whip applied to the back and shoulders, or with the "fasces" (similar to a birch rod, but consisting of 8–10 lengths of willow rather than birch) applied to the buttocks. Such punishments could draw blood, and were frequently inflicted in public.

Quintilian's (c. 35 – c. 100) early and complete opposition to corporal punishment is notable. According to McCole Wilson, probably no more lucid indictment of it has been made in the succeeding two thousand years.[9]

By that boys should suffer corporal punishment, though it is received by custom, and Chrysippus makes no objection to it, I by no means approve; first, because it is a disgrace, and a punishment fit for slaves, and in reality (as will be evident if you imagine the age change) an affront; secondly, because, if a boy's disposition be so abject as not to be amended by reproof, he will be hardened, like the worst of slaves, even to stripes; and lastly, because, if one who regularly exacts his tasks be with him, there will not be the need of any chastisement...
Besides, after you have coerced a boy with stripes, how will you treat him when he becomes a young man, to whom such terror cannot be held out, and by whom more difficult studies must be pursued? Add to these considerations, that many things unpleasant to be mentioned, and likely afterwards to cause shame, often happen to boys while being whipped, under the influence of pain or fear; and such shame enervates and depresses the mind, and makes them shun people's sight and feel constant uneasiness ... scandalously unworthy men may abuse the privilege of punishing, and what opportunity also the terror of the unhappy children may sometimes afford others. (Quintilian, Institutes of Oratory, 1856 edition, I, III)[10]

Plutarch, also in the first century, says something similar:

This also I assert, that children ought to be led to honourable practices by means of encouragement and reasoning, and most certainly not by blows or ill-treatment, for it surely is agreed that these are fitting rather for slaves than for the free-born; for so they grow numb and shudder at their tasks, partly from the pain of the blows, partly from the degradation. Praise and reproof are more helpful for the free-born than any sort of ill-usage, since the praise incites them toward what is honourable, and reproof keeps them from what is disgraceful.[11]

In Medieval Europe, corporal punishment was encouraged by the attitudes of the medieval church towards the human body, flagellation being a common means of self-discipline. This had an influence on the use of corporal punishment in schools, as educational establishments were closely attached to the church during this period. Nevertheless, corporal punishment was not used uncritically; as early as the eleventh century Saint Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury was speaking out against what he saw as the excessive use of corporal punishment in the treatment of children.[12]

From the 16th century onwards, new trends were seen in corporal punishment. Judicial punishments were increasingly turned into public spectacles, with public beatings of criminals intended as a deterrent to other would-be offenders. Meanwhile, early writers on education, such as Roger Ascham, complained of the arbitrary manner in which children were punished.[13]

Peter Newell assumes that perhaps the most influential writer on the subject was the English philosopher John Locke, whose Some Thoughts Concerning Education explicitly criticised the central role of corporal punishment in education. Locke's work was highly influential, and may have helped influence Polish legislators to ban corporal punishment from Poland's schools in 1783, the first country in the world to do so.[14]

During the 18th century, the concept of corporal punishment was attacked by some philosophers and legal reformers. Merely inflicting pain on miscreants was seen as inefficient, influencing the subject only for a short period of time and effecting no permanent change in their behaviour. Some believed that the purpose of punishment should be reformation, not retribution. This is perhaps best expressed in Jeremy Bentham's idea of a panoptic prison, in which prisoners were controlled and surveyed at all times, perceived to be advantageous in that this system supposedly reduced the need of measures such as corporal punishment.[15]

A consequence of this mode of thinking was a reduction in the use of corporal punishment in the 19th century in Europe and North America. In some countries this was encouraged by scandals involving individuals seriously hurt during acts of corporal punishment. For instance, in Britain, popular opposition to punishment was encouraged by two significant cases, the death of Private Frederick John White, who died after a military flogging in 1846,[16] and the death of Reginald Cancellor, who was killed by his schoolmaster in 1860.[17] Events such as these mobilised public opinion, and in response, many countries introduced thorough regulation of the infliction of corporal punishment in state institutions such as schools, prisons and reformatories.

In the 1870s, courts in the United States overruled the common-law principle that a husband had the right to "physically chastise an errant wife".[18] In the UK the traditional right of a husband to inflict moderate corporal punishment on his wife in order to keep her "within the bounds of duty" was similarly removed in 1891.[19][20] See Domestic violence for more information.

In the United Kingdom, the use of judicial corporal punishment declined during the first half of the 20th century and it was abolished altogether in 1948, while most other European countries had abolished it earlier. Meanwhile in many schools, the use of the cane, paddle or tawse remained commonplace in the UK and the United States until the 1980s. In several other countries, it still is: see School corporal punishment.

International law

Human Rights

Key developments related to corporal punishment happen only in the late 20th century. Years with particular significance to the prohibition of corporal punishment are emphasised.

  • 1990 Supplement: Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty. Rule 67: “...all disciplinary measures constituting cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment shall be strictly prohibited, including corporal punishment...”
  • 1992: Human Rights Committee, overseeing its implementation, comments: “the prohibition must extend to corporal punishment . . . in this regard . . . article 7 protects, in particular, children, . . .."[24]
  • 2001: European Committee of Social Rights, overseeing its implementation, concludes: it is not “acceptable that a society which prohibits any form of physical violence between adults would accept that adults subject children to physical violence.”[29]

Children's Rights

Breakthroughs regarding children’s rights were made in the early 20th century, but the condemnation of corporal punishment in specific happens only in the late 20th century. Years with particular significance to the prohibition of corporal punishment are emphasised.

  • 1924 Adopted as the World Child Welfare Charter, League of Nations (non-enforceable).
  • 2006: Committee on the Rights of the Child, overseeing its implementation, comments: there is an "obligation of all States parties to move quickly to prohibit and eliminate all corporal punishment.”[31]
  • 2011: Optional Protocol on a Communications Procedure allowing individual children to submit complaints regarding specific violations of their rights.[32]

Modern use

The earliest recorded attempt to prohibit corporal punishment of children by a state dates back to Poland in 1783.[36] However, its prohibition in all spheres of life – in homes, schools, the penal system and alternative care settings – occurred first in 1979 in Sweden. The new Swedish Parental Code reads: “Children are entitled to care, security and a good upbringing. Children are to be treated with respect for their person and individuality and may not be subjected to corporal punishment or any other humiliating treatment.”[37] By now 32 states have completely prohibited corporal punishment of children by law. In addition, supreme court rulings prohibits CP in 2 further states while another 21 states have officially committed to full prohibition. State that have completely prohibited corporal punishment of children by law are, in chronological order:[38]

Sweden (1979)
Finland (1983)
Norway (1987)
Austria (1989)
Cyprus (1994)
Denmark (1997)
Latvia (1998)
Croatia (1999)
Bulgaria (2000)
Israel (2000)

Germany (2000)
Iceland (2003)
Ukraine (2004)
Romania (2004)
Hungary (2005)
Greece (2006)
Netherlands (2007)
New Zealand (2007)
Portugal (2007)
Uruguay (2007)
Venezuela (2007)

Spain (2007)
Togo (2007)
Costa Rica (2008)
Republic of Moldova (2008)
Luxembourg (2008)
Liechtenstein (2008)
Poland (2010)
Tunisia (2010)
Kenya (2010)
Congo, Republic of (2010)
Albania (2010)
South Sudan (2011).

For a more detailed overview of the global use and prohibition of the corporal punishment of children, see the following table.

Summary of the number of states prohibiting corporal punishment of children[39]
HomeSchoolsPenal systemAlternative care settings
As sentence for crimeAs disciplinary measure
Not prohibited166814278160
Legality unknown--14-

Corporal punishment in the home

Domestic corporal punishment, i.e. of children by their parents, is usually referred to colloquially as "spanking", "whipping", "smacking," or "slapping." One possible method of spanking is to have the child lying, stomach down, across the parent's lap, with the parent bringing their open hand down upon the child's buttocks. Alternatively, the youngster might be told to bend over, or lie face down across a bed.[40] Spankings may be delivered over the trousers, over the undergarments, or upon the bare buttocks.

In an increasing number of countries it has been outlawed, starting with Sweden in 1979.[3] In some other countries, corporal punishment is legal, but restricted (e.g. blows to the head are outlawed and implements may not be used, and/or only children within a certain age range may be spanked).

In the United States and all African (except South Sudan, Kenya, Togo, Tunisia and the Republic of the Congo) and most Asian nations, "spanking," "whipping," "smacking," or "slapping" by parents is currently legal; it is also legal to use certain implements such as a belt or paddle.

In Canada, spanking by parents or legal guardians (but nobody else) is legal, as long as the child is not under 2 years or over 12 years of age, and no implement other than an open, bare hand is used (belts, paddles, etc. are strictly prohibited)[41] [42] . Provinces can legally impose tighter restrictions than the aforementioned national restrictions, or even complete bans, but none currently does so.

In the UK, spanking or smacking is legal, but it must not leave a mark on the body and in Scotland since October 2003 it has been illegal to use any implements when disciplining a child. In Wales, in October 2011, the National Assembly voted to pass a bill to completely ban corporal punishment in the home, but the law is unlikely to be enacted before the end of this assembly term.

In Pakistan, Section 89 of Pakistan Penal Code allows corporal punishment. The Government of Pakistan has yet to repeal this law.[43]

Corporal punishment in schools

Legality of corporal punishment in the United States:
  Corporal punishment prohibited in schools

Legal corporal punishment of school students for misbehaviour involves striking the student on the buttocks or the palm of the hand in a premeditated ceremony with an implement specially kept for the purpose such as a rattan cane or spanking paddle, or with the open hand. There are some restrictions e.g. caning is permitted for boys only, the boy cannot be caned on his bare buttocks etc.

Judicial or quasi-judicial punishment

  Countries with judicial corporal punishment

Some 33 countries retain judicial corporal punishment, including a number of former British territories such as Botswana, Malaysia, Singapore and Tanzania. In Malaysia and Singapore, for certain specified offences, males are routinely sentenced to caning in addition to a prison term. The Singaporean practice of caning became much discussed around the world in 1994 when American teenager Michael P. Fay was caned for vandalism.

A number of countries with an Islamic legal system, such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan and northern Nigeria, employ judicial whipping for a range of offences. As of 2009, some regions of Pakistan are experiencing a breakdown of law and government, leading to a reintroduction of corporal punishment by ad hoc Islamicist courts.[44] As well as corporal punishment, some Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran use other kinds of physical penalties such as amputation or mutilation.[45][46][47] However, the term "corporal punishment" has since the 19th century usually meant caning, flogging or whipping rather than those other types of physical penalty.[48][49][50][51][52][53][54]

Pros and cons of corporal punishment

According to its proponents, corporal punishment offers several advantages over other kinds of punishment, such as that it is quicker to implement, costs nothing, and deters unruliness.[55][56]

The American Psychological Association opposes the use of corporal punishment in schools, juvenile facilities, child care nurseries, and all other institutions, public or private, where children are cared for or educated. It claims that corporal punishment is violent and unnecessary, may lower self-esteem, and is liable to instil hostility and rage without reducing the undesired behaviour. The APA also states that corporal punishment is likely to train children to use physical violence.[57]

The professor of philosophy, David Benatar, points out that using this last argument, fining people also teaches that forcing others to give up some of their property is an acceptable response to unwanted behaviour in others. "Why don't detentions, imprisonments, fines, and a multitude of other punishments convey equally undesirable messages?" According to Benatar, the key difference lies in the legitimacy of the authority administering the punishment: "[T]here is all the difference in the world between legitimate authorities—the judiciary, parents, or teachers—using punitive powers responsibly to punish wrongdoing, and children or private citizens going around beating each other, locking each other up, and extracting financial tributes (such as lunch money). There is a vast moral difference here and there is no reason why children should not learn about it. Punishing children when they do wrong seems to be one important way of doing this."[58]

Anatomical target

Different parts of the anatomy may be targeted:

Ritual and punishment

Corporal punishment in official settings, such as schools and prisons, has typically been carried out as a formal ceremony, with a standard procedure, emphasising the solemnity of the occasion. It may even be staged in a ritual manner in front of other students/inmates, in order to act as a deterrent to others.

In the case of prison or judicial punishments, formal punishment might begin with the offender stripped of some or all of their clothing and secured to a piece of furniture, such as a trestle or frame,[60][61] (X-cross), punishment horse or falaka. In some cases the nature of the offence is read out and the sentence (consisting of a predetermined number of strokes) is formally imposed. A variety of implements may be used to inflict blows on the offender. The terms used to describe these are not fixed, varying by country and by context. There are, however, a number of common types that are encountered when reading about corporal punishment. These include:

In some instances the offender is required to prepare the implement himself. For instance, sailors were employed in preparing the cat o' nine tails that would be used upon their own back, while school students were sometimes sent out to cut a switch or rod.

In contrast, informal punishments, particularly in domestic settings, tend to lack this ritual nature and are often administered with whatever object comes to hand. It is common, for instance, for belts, wooden spoons, slippers, hairbrushes or coathangers to be used in domestic punishment, while rulers and other classroom equipment have been used in schools.

In parts of England, boys were once beaten under the old tradition of "Beating the Bounds" whereby a boy was paraded around the edge of a city or parish and would be spanked with a switch or cane to mark the boundary.[62] One famous "Beating the Bounds" took place around the boundary of St Giles and the area where Tottenham Court Road now stands in central London. The actual stone that separated the boundary is now underneath the Centre Point office tower.[63]

See also


  1. ^ UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (2001) “General Comment No. 1:" par 11.
  2. ^ Reaves, Jessica. "Survey Gives Children Something to Cry About", Time, New York, 5 October 2000.
  3. ^ a b Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children (GITEACPOC).
  4. ^ France State Report, GITEACPOC, February 2008.
  5. ^ Proverbs 13:24
  6. ^ Proverbs 23:13–14
  7. ^ McCole Wilson, Robert. A Study of Attitudes Towards Corporal Punishment as an Educational Procedure From the Earliest Times to the Present, Nijmegen University, 1999, 2.3 to 2.6.
  8. ^ McCole Wilson, 2.5.
  9. ^ McCole Wilson, 2.5.
  10. ^ Quoted in McCole Wilson, 2.5.
  11. ^ Plutarch, 'De liberis educandis', as published in Vol. I, Moralia, 'The Education of Children' in the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1927
  12. ^ Wicksteed, Joseph H. The Challenge of Childhood: An Essay on Nature and Education, Chapman & Hall, London, 1936, pp. 34–35. OCLC 3085780
  13. ^ Ascham, Roger. The scholemaster, John Daye, London, 1571, p. 1. Republished by Constable, London, 1927. OCLC 10463182
  14. ^ Newell, Peter (ed.). A Last Resort? Corporal Punishment in Schools, Penguin, London, 1972, p. 9. ISBN 0-14-080698-9
  15. ^ Bentham, Jeremy. Chrestomathia (Martin J. Smith and Wyndham H. Burston, eds.), Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1983, pp. 34, 106. ISBN 0-19-822610-1
  16. ^ The History of The 7th Queen’s Own Hussars Vol. II, by C.R.B. Barretts
  17. ^ Middleton. Jacob. "Thomas Hopley and mid-Victorian attitudes to corporal punishment". History of Education 2005.
  18. ^ Calvert, R. "Criminal and civil liability in husband-wife assaults", in Violence in the family (Suzanne K. Steinmetz and Murray A. Straus, eds.), Harper & Row, New York, 1974. ISBN 0-396-06864-2
  19. ^ R. v Jackson, [1891] 1 QB 671, abstracted at
  20. ^ "Corporal punishment", Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, 1911.
  21. ^ This applies to the 47 members to the Council of Europe, an entirely separate body from the European Union, which has only 27 member states.
  22. ^ Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children (2012) (accessed 1 May 2012): “Key Judgements.” The ruling regarded the Isle of Man - a UK Dependent Territory.
  23. ^ UN (2012) “4 . International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” United Nations Treaty Collection, (accessed 1 May 2012).
  24. ^ UN Human Rights Committee (1992) “General Comment No. 20,” HRI/GEN/1/Rev.4.: p. 108
  25. ^ UN (2012) “9 . Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment,” United Nations Treaty Collection, (accessed 1 May 2012).
  26. ^ UN (1996) General Assembly Official Records, Fiftieth Session, A/50/44, 1995: par. 177, and A/51/44, 1996: par. 65(i).
  27. ^ UN (2012) “3. International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights,” United Nations Treaty Collection, (accessed 1 May 2012).
  28. ^ UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1999) “General Comment on ‘The Right to Education’,” HRI/GEN/1/Rev.4: 73.
  29. ^ European Committee of Social Rights 2001. “Conclusions XV – 2,” Vol. 1.
  30. ^ UN (2012) “11. Convention on the Rights of the Child,” United Nations Treaty Collection, <> (accessed 1 May 2012).. The United States, Somalia and South Sudan are the only countries that have not ratified the Convention.
  31. ^ UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (2006) “General Comment No. 8:” par. 3. However, Article 19 of the Convention makes no reference to corporal punishment, and the Committee's interpretation on this point has been explicitly rejected by several States Party to the Convention, including Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom.
  32. ^ UN OHCHR (2012) “Committee on the Rights of the Child,” Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, (accessed 1 May 2012).
  33. ^ Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children (2012) (accessed 1 May 2012): "Supporters."
  34. ^ UN (2006) “Study on Violence against Children presented by Independent Expert for the Secretary-General” United Nations, A/61/299. See further: UN (2012e) “Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence against Children,” (accessed 1 May 2012).
  35. ^ UN (2007) United Nations General Assembly, A/RES/62/141. The United States was the only country to vote against. There were no abstentions.
  36. ^ Council of Europe (2007) Abolishing corporal punishment of children. Questions and answers. Building a Europe for and with children. Council of Europe Publishing: 31-2.
  37. ^ Council of Europe (2007) Abolishing corporal punishment of children. Questions and answers. Building a Europe for and with children. Council of Europe Publishing: 32.
  38. ^ Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children (2012) (accessed 1 May 2012): “Global Progress.”
  39. ^ Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children (2012) Global Progress towards Prohibiting All Corporal Punishment, January 2012.
  40. ^ "Spank with Love: Spanking positions". 
  41. ^ "To spank or not to spank?". CBC News. Retrieved 17 September 2012. 
  42. ^ Barnett, Laura. "The "Spanking" Law: Section 43 of the Criminal Code". Parliament of Canada. Retrieved 17 September 2012. 
  43. ^ Mazhar Siraj (2010). "Culture as a Factor in the Translation of International Human Rights Law into Local Justice: Evidence from Corporal Punishment of Pakistan". Web Journal of Current Legal Issues (4). 
  44. ^ Walsh, Declan. "Video of girl's flogging as Taliban hand out justice", The Guardian, London, 2 April 2009.
  45. ^ Campaign against the Arms Trade, Evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, London, January 2005.
  46. ^ "Lashing Justice", Editorial, New York Times, 3 December 2007.
  47. ^ "Saudi Arabia: Court Orders Eye to Be Gouged Out", Human Rights Watch, 8 December 2005.
  48. ^ Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition, 1989, "corporal punishment: punishment inflicted on the body; originally including death, mutilation, branding, bodily confinement, irons, the pillory, etc. (as opposed to a fine or punishment in estate or rank). In 19th c. usually confined to flogging or similar infliction of bodily pain."
  49. ^ "Physical punishment such as caning or flogging" – Concise Oxford Dictionary.
  50. ^ "... inflicted on the body, esp. by beating." – Oxford American Dictionary of Current English.
  51. ^ a b "mostly a euphemism for the enforcement of discipline by applying canes, whips or birches to the buttocks." – Charles Arnold-Baker, The Companion to British History, Routledge, 2001.
  52. ^ "Physical punishment such as beating or caning" – Chambers 21st Century Dictionary.
  53. ^ "Punishment of a physical nature, such as caning, flogging, or beating." – Collins English Dictionary.
  54. ^ "the striking of somebody's body as punishment" – Encarta World English Dictionary, MSN. Archived 2009-10-31.
  55. ^ Vorhaus, John. "A fair price to pay", The Guardian, London, 14 March 1998.
  56. ^ "Major panics on punishment" (Editorial), The Daily Telegraph, London, 30 October 1996.
  57. ^ Resolution on Corporal Punishment, American Psychological Association, 1975.
  58. ^ Benatar, David. Corporal punishment, Social Theory and Practice, vol.24 no.2, 1998.
  59. ^ "Corporal Punishment to Children's Hands", A Statement by Medical Authorities as to the Risks, January 2002.
  60. ^ See for instance Photograph of a public flogging in Iran (2007).
  61. ^ See Pictures of trestle used for judicial caning in Singapore
  62. ^ "Mayor may axe child spanking rite", BBC News Online, 21 September 2004.
  63. ^ Ackroyd, Peter. London: The biography, Chatto & Windus, London, 2000. ISBN 1-85619-716-6

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