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Corporal punishment

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Corporal punishment

Corporal punishment or physical punishment (physical discipline in some contexts) is a punishment intended to cause physical pain on a person. It is usually inflicted in settings with a substantial disparity of power between the partakers.


Corporal punishment is commonly practiced on minors, especially in home and also school settings, usually employing more modest forms. Common methods in this regard often include spanking or paddling.

It is however also used on adults, particularly prisoners in some countries. In history most cultures have practiced corporal punishment on adults in settings of imprisonment or slavery. Frequently employed methods are flagellation and caning. In some countries bastinado is still practiced on prisoners as well.

Official punishment for crime by inflicting pain or injury, including flogging, branding and even mutilation, was practised in most civilizations since ancient times. However, with the growth of humanitarian ideals since the Enlightenment, such punishments were increasingly viewed as inhumane. By the late 20th century, corporal punishment had been eliminated from the legal systems of most developed countries.

The legality in the 21st century of corporal punishment in various settings differs by jurisdiction. Internationally, the late 20th century and early 21st century saw the application of human rights law to the question of corporal punishment in a number of contexts:

  • Family or domestic corporal punishment—typically, punishment of children or teenagers by parents or other adult guardians—is legal in most of the world. 51 countries, most of them in Europe and Latin America, have banned the practice as of November 2016.
  • School corporal punishment—of students by teachers or school administrators—has been banned in many countries, including Canada, Kenya, South Africa, New Zealand and nearly all of Europe. It remains legal, if increasingly less common, in the United States.
  • Judicial corporal punishment, as part of a criminal sentence ordered by a court of law, has long disappeared from European countries. However, it remains lawful in parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Closely related is prison corporal punishment or disciplinary corporal punishment, ordered by prison authorities or carried out directly by staff. Corporal punishment is also allowed in some military settings in a few jurisdictions.
  • Other uses of corporal punishment have existed, for instance as once practised on apprentices by their masters. In many Western countries, medical and human-rights organizations oppose corporal punishment of children. Campaigns against corporal punishment have aimed to bring about legal reform to ban the use of corporal punishment against minors in homes and schools.


    Corporal punishment of children has traditionally been used in the Western world by adults in authority roles. Beating one's child as a punishment was recommended as early as c. the 10th century BC in the book of Proverbs attributed to Solomon:

    He that spareth the rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him correcteth him betimes.
    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.

    It was certainly present in classical civilizations, being used in Greece, Rome, and Egypt for both judicial and educational discipline. 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. 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 (c. 35 – c. 100) voiced opposition to the use of corporal punishment in some circumstances, while appearing to condone its use against slaves, which was customary in 1st century Rome. According to Robert McCole Wilson, "probably no more lucid indictment of it has been made in the succeeding two thousand years".

    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)

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    During the 18th century, the concept of corporal punishment was challenged by some philosophers and legal reformers. Merely inflicting pain was seen as an inefficient form of discipline, 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.

    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, and the death of Reginald Cancellor, killed by his schoolmaster in 1860. Events such as these mobilised public opinion and, by the late nineteenth century, the extent of corporal punishment's use in state schools was unpopular with many parents in England. Authorities in Britain and some other countries introduced more detailed rules for the infliction of corporal punishment in government institutions such as schools, prisons and reformatories. By the First World War, parents' complaints about disciplinary excesses in England had died down, and corporal punishment was established as an expected form of school discipline.

    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". 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. 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 the Criminal Justice Act, 1948 (zi & z2 GEo. 6. CH. 58.), whereby whipping and flogging were outlawed except for use in very serious internal prison discipline cases, 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.

    Human rights

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

  • 1950: European Convention of Human Rights, Council of Europe. Article 3 bars "inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment".
  • 1978: European Court of Human Rights, overseeing its implementation, rules that judicial birching of a juvenile breaches Article 3.
  • 1985: Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice, or Beijing Rules, United Nations (UN). Rule 17.3: "Juveniles shall not be subject to corporal punishment."
  • 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..."
  • 1990: Guidelines for the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency, the Riyadh Guidelines, UN. Paragraph 21(h): education systems should avoid "harsh disciplinary measures, particularly corporal punishment."
  • 1966: International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, UN, with currently 167 parties, 74 signatories. Article 7: "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or 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, . . .."
  • 1984: Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, UN, with currently 150 parties and 78 signatories.
  • 1996: Committee Against Torture, overseeing its implementation, condemns corporal punishment.
  • 1966: International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, UN, with currently 160 parties, and 70 signatories. Article 13(1): "education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity..."
  • 1999: Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, overseeing its implementation, comments: "corporal punishment is inconsistent with the fundamental guiding principle of international human rights law . . . the dignity of the individual."
  • 1961: European Social Charter, Council of Europe.
  • 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."
  • Children's rights

    The notion of children’s rights in the Western world developed in the 20th century, but the issue of corporal punishment was not addressed generally before mid-century. Years with particular significance to the prohibition of corporal punishment of children are emphasised.

  • 1923: Children's Rights Proclamation by Save the Children founder. (5 articles).
  • 1924 Adopted as the World Child Welfare Charter, League of Nations (non-enforceable).
  • 1959: Declaration of the Rights of the Child, (UN) (10 articles; non-binding).
  • 1989: Convention on the Rights of the Child, UN (54 articles; binding treaty), with currently 193 parties and 140 signatories. Article 19.1: "States Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation . . . ."
  • 2006: Committee on the Rights of the Child, overseeing its implementation, comments: there is an "obligation of all States Party to move quickly to prohibit and eliminate all corporal punishment."
  • 2011: Optional Protocol on a Communications Procedure allowing individual children to submit complaints regarding specific violations of their rights.
  • 2006: Study on Violence against Children presented by Independent Expert for the Secretary-General to the UN General Assembly.
  • 2007: Post of Special Representative of the Secretary-General on violence against children established.
  • Many European countries, including all Nordic countries, have prohibited any corporal punishment of children.

    The earliest recorded attempt to prohibit corporal punishment of children by a state dates back to Poland in 1783. 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."

    As of 2016, corporal punishment is outlawed in all settings, including the home, in 51 countries and 2 constituent countries. States that have completely prohibited corporal punishment of children are listed below (in chronological order):

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

    Corporal punishment in the home

    Domestic corporal punishment, i.e. of children by their parents, is often referred to colloquially as "spanking", "smacking" or "slapping."

    In an increasing number of countries it has been outlawed, starting with Sweden in 1979. 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 all states of the United States, and most African and Asian nations, corporal punishment 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).

    In the UK, spanking or smacking is legal, but it must not cause an injury amounting to Actual Bodily Harm (a "serious" injury such as visible bruising, breaking of the whole skin etc.); in Scotland since October 2003 it has been illegal to use any implement or chastise to the head when disciplining a child. In England and Wales slippering (i.e. striking the buttocks repeatedly with the sole of a slipper) has been the traditional method of punishing children in the home. It is assumed still to be legal, provided that no long-lasting bruises are caused.

    In Pakistan, Section 89 of Pakistan Penal Code allows corporal punishment.

    Corporal punishment in schools

    Corporal punishment of school students for misbehaviour has been outlawed in many countries. It often involves striking the student on the buttocks or the palm of the hand with an implement kept for the purpose such as a rattan cane or spanking paddle, or with the open hand. There may be restrictions in some jurisdictions, e.g. in Singapore caning is permitted for boys only. Medical professionals have urged an end to the practice, noting the danger of injury to children's hands especially. In India corporal punishment has been abolished by law. However, corporal punishment continues to exist and practised in many Indian Schools. Cultural perception of corporal punishment has rarely been studied and researched. One research carried out by Arijit Ghosh and Madhumathi Pasupathi discusses how corporal punishment is perceived among parents and students, with a representative sample size, in the Indian context.

    Judicial or quasi-judicial 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 received four strokes of the cane for vandalism.

    A number of countries with an Islamic legal system, such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan and some northern states in 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. 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. However, the term "corporal punishment" has since the 19th century usually meant caning, flagellation or bastinado rather than those other types of physical penalty.

    Proposal to reinstate flogging

    In the book In Defense of Flogging, Peter Moskos, a former police officer, suggests that a long prison sentence can be more inhumane than flogging. Moskos believes that many criminals would elect to receive a few lashes (under medical supervision), and questions whether flogging should ever be an option. One reviewer for The Economist writes about Moskos's argument that "Perhaps the most damning evidence of the broken American prison system is that it makes a proposal to reinstate flogging appear almost reasonable. Almost."

    Ritual and punishment

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

    In the case of prison or judicial punishments, the formal procedure might begin with the offender stripped of some or all of their clothing and restrained to a piece of furniture, such as a trestle or frame, (X-cross), punishment horse, plank or bench. In some cases the nature of the offence is read out before the punishment (usually consisting of a predetermined number of strokes) is formally imposed. A variety of implements may be used to inflict strokes 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:

  • The rod. A thin, flexible rod is often called a switch. Typically used for beating the palms of the hands and soles of the feet.
  • The birch, a number of strong, flexible branches of birch or similar wood, bound together with twine into a single implement.
  • The rattan cane (not bamboo as it is often wrongly described). Much favoured in the British Commonwealth for both school and judicial use.
  • The paddle, a flat wooden board with a handle, with or without holes. Used in US schools.
  • The strap. A leather strap with a number of tails at one end, called a tawse, was used in schools in Scotland and some parts of northern England.
  • The whip, typically of leather. Varieties include the Russian knout and South African sjambok, in addition to the scourge and the French martinet.
  • The cat o' nine tails was used in British naval discipline and as a judicial and prison punishment.
  • The Scourge
  • The Riding crop
  • The hairbrush and belt were traditionally used in the United States and Britain as an implement for domestic spanking.
  • The plimsoll or gym shoe, used in British and Commonwealth schools, as well as at home, often called "the slipper". See Slippering (punishment).
  • The ferula, in Jesuit schools, as vividly described in a scene in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
  • 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. 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.


    Corporal punishment Wikipedia