Global progress in gaining faith-based support for law reform
The power and influence of religion
With almost five of the world’s six billion people professing some affiliation to a religion, it is not surprising that in many countries of the world, religion continues to have a powerful influence on local culture, customs and traditions, including the ways in which children are parented.
Corporal punishment of children has become a deeply entrenched practice in many parts of the world with some countries tracing its introduction back to the arrival of Christian missionaries in the nineteenth century. In some communities the Bible and other sacred texts are still used to justify corporal punishment. Although these views are increasingly being challenged, physical punishment and other humiliating treatment remains commonplace in all states and across all faiths and cultures, despite evidence of its ineffectiveness in changing behaviour, and an increased awareness of the physical, emotional and spiritual harm it does to children.
Most of the world’s religions aim to teach the value of every human being through the respect and safeguarding of human dignity. Historically, religions have been involved in social justice and care for the vulnerable. But they have also failed to protect children from violence. More recently it has taken the revelation of large-scale child abuse of children in some religious institutions to persuade religious communities to think deeply about the status of children in their organisations and of children as holders of human rights.
Some religions see themselves as having a prophetic role that challenges them to work for change for the vulnerable in society. These beliefs, together with the religious imperative to protect children from harm, can form a strong basis for engaging with faith-based groups and working collaboratively to address violence against children. All the world religions have in their scriptures a version of the golden rule: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” and most preach non-violence.
Opportunities for change
Recent global events such as the World Council of Churches Decade for Non-violence and the UN Study on Violence against Children have provided a platform for addressing the problem of corporal punishment. For those who have had access to the report, the UN Study has had a profound influence on religious thinking about children.
Recognising the pivotal role religions can play in addressing violence against children, in May 2006, the World Conference of Religions for Peace in partnership with UNICEF convened a multi-religious consultation in Toledo, Spain for religious leaders of all the faiths from 30 countries. The aim of the consultation was to develop a multi-religious response to the UN Study on Violence against Children. Participants were asked to confront the reality of violence against children, think deeply about the causes, and find solutions and immediate responses to protect children. Another task set for conference participants was to explore how faith-based communities could come together to take a leadership role in their societies to protect children. The meeting pledged to help mobilise the international community and work in partnership with governments, UN agencies and others to implement the UN Study’s recommendations.
The consultation rejected all forms of violence against children and named the principles of compassion, justice, love and solidarity as strengths in addressing violence against children. A key action was an acknowledgement of the past failures of religious groups to protect children and to be advocates for them. Religious leaders admitted that the suffering of children and their vulnerability had been increased through the silence, omission and failure of religious leaders to listen to children and take measures to protect them. There was an acknowledgement that religion, once seen as part of the problem must now be part of the solution. A declaration containing recommendations for action was endorsed at the Eighth World Assembly of Religions for Peace (WCRP) in Kyoto August 2006.1
Multi-faith cooperation and collaboration means putting aside individual differences in the shared interest of children and using the many opportunities religious leaders and scholars have for creating awareness, speaking out and being advocates for children. Religious leaders have many opportunities to influence change in attitudes during their diverse roles and functions, not only in the religious organisation, but also as scholars and in public life.
Action by faith-based groups
One example of how religious scholars have helped to change attitudes about children can be found in the study Children in Islam published by UNICEF2 in collaboration with Al-Azhar University, Cairo. Children in Islam promotes the rights of the child and calls for an end to harmful traditional practices against children. As a result of the study, prominent religious leaders have denounced violence against children, amongst them is Sheikh Sayyad Mohammed Tantawi, who said: “Parental care is the main foundation for protecting children and enabling them to enjoy the rights guaranteed by Islam. But society and state institutions also have a key role in this regard. For all children to acquire such rights without discrimination, law-makers must also ensure that children are protected from physical or moral humiliation.”
In addition, sometimes an understanding of the religious symbolism and spiritual practice of a particular faith can be used to help change attitudes. In a Bhutan workshop with UNICEF, the guiding principles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) were translated into a mandala — blending the Buddhist approach to life with the basic framework of the UNCRC.3 In Sanskrit mandala means circle, and its use in Buddhism combines an appreciation of the artistic form as well as a focus for meditation. In this example the child was placed in the centre of the mandala which is the abode of the deity. The child was surrounded by a series of circles and squares symbolising the principles of the UNCRC and emphasising their symmetry, interdependence and interrelatedness. Traditionally the mandala is a vehicle for concentrating the thoughts and mind on a valued concept towards enlightening the mind. In this case the mind was concentrated on children’s rights.
One of the biggest challenges in gaining religious support for law reform comes from those who use religious texts as a justification for corporal punishment. In January 2008, the Bishops’ Conference of Norway agreed that outdated language used to justify the corporal punishment of children should be replaced in new translations of the Christian Bible in Norway.
Church leaders agreed with the proposal for the word “chastisement” in the Bible to be replaced with more appropriate language reflecting its original meaning. They stated: “Chastisement has acquired a meaning that differs from its original intended meaning. In modern Norwegian usage the word chastisement is virtually synonymous with corporal punishment. Today this word is unsuitable for reflecting what is involved when the Bible speaks of parents’ responsibility to raise and guide children.
“In the past corporal punishment was practised as a part of parenting. Today we know that such methods of punishment are destructive and offensive to children. Many have permanent mental or phvsical injuries from having suffered violence during childhood.”
In a statement the Norwegian bishops said: “We urge those working in the churches to take an active lead in combating violence against children — in their sermons, education and guidance. Men and women working in the church must point out how such violence represents an infringement of human worth and is in conflict with Christian ethics.”
During 2007 the South African Council of Churches (SACC) insisted there could be no biblical justification for corporal punishment of children in the 21st century. Supported by Save the Children, the SACC produced a position paper entitled: Religions: The promotion of Positive Discipline and the Abolition of Corporal Punishment. The paper states that: “Contrary to belief, there is no occasion ever in the New Testament where Jesus promotes physical punishment as a justifiable means of discipline”. Christian proponents of hitting children base their arguments on the Old Testament. However, the Old Testament reflects patriarchy and slavery as the norm, and warfare as a way of solving problems.
In 2007 New Zealand Anglican bishops declared their
support for the repeal of Section 59 of the Crimes Act (which authorised
the use of corporal punishment) and presented a signed statement in
support of the repeals, to Prime Minister Helen Clark. In response to
Christians who argue that the Bible condones corporal punishment they
said physical punishment was not supported by contemporary religious
scholarship and stated: “As Christians, our reading of the Bible must
always be done through the lens of Christ’s teaching and life ... the
way of Jesus was non-violence.”
1 Available at: http:// www.churchesfornon-violence.orq/links.html and also featured in the December 2007 edition of Article 19, 3, 3 (2007).
2 Children in Islam, Their Care, Protection and Development (2005) AI-Azhar University, Cairo, Egypt, UNICEF.
3 Cited on UNICEF www.unicef.org/bhutan/mandala.htm - Report of work in Bhutan on the Rights of the Child.
This feature: Dodd, Chris. (2008). Global progress in gaining faith-based support for law reform. Article 19, 4, 1. pp. 1-3.