The Urgent but Complex Path to Ending Corporal Punishment: Understanding the Role of Bans

Introduction by Judith Herbertson, Head of Girls’ Education at the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

Today is the International Day to End Corporal Punishment. Children around the world continue to face unacceptably high levels of corporal punishment in school and at home, with rates surpassing 90 percent in some places. It is one of the most common, widely accepted and preventable forms of violence. 793 million school-age children live in countries where corporal punishment in school is not fully prohibited.

Corporal punishment in schools undermines everything that education seeks to achieve. It is not only a violation of children’s right, it also has a detrimental impact on learning, development and wellbeing. Yet, in many contexts, it is regarded by educators, caregivers and policymakers as an effective or necessary way of educating a child and controlling a classroom. Only 65 countries have fully banned corporal punishment, with a further 27 on a path to prohibition.

As this new research from the Center for Global Development shows, clarity in law that corporal punishment is not permitted is a positive step to eliminating violent punishment. But this must be accompanied by education sector-owned and evidence-based strategies to end violence, including promoting positive discipline. Evidence generated through the UK’s Girls’ Education Challenge shows that violence-related interventions can reduce the number of children who feel unsafe, and parents who perceive schools are unsafe for their children, and reduce instances of corporal punishment.

Making education safe for every learner requires a global movement of civil society, partner countries, and multilateral organisations. Children have a right to learn without fear of violence in school; they deserve a childhood free of violence.

Corporal punishment bans are necessary but not enough

New research published today sheds light on whether corporal punishment bans work. Using a sample of 24 developing countries, nine with bans and 15 without bans, the study examines whether parents are more likely to approve of and use corporal punishment when it’s banned, using before- and after-data from nationally representative surveys. While legislation marks an important and often symbolic step forward, the mere existence of bans is not sufficient to drive change alone. However, it is an important first step. And our message today is that: the education sector must take action to ensure that bans are introduced, enforced, and accompanied with evidence-based strategies to end violence and keep children safe in school.

Tracing the impact of corporal punishment bans over time

Of course, the impact of any legislation relies on good dissemination and enforcement. And so, it’s logical that bans are not all that’s needed. Nonetheless, CGD analysis shows that in countries with bans, fewer children are beaten by their teachers in school (figure 1). On average, there is a 12-percentage point difference in prevalence rate between countries with bans versus those without. In countries where corporal punishment has been banned, around six percent of children have experienced corporal punishment in school in the last 12 months, compared with 18 percent in countries without bans. Parental approval and use of corporal punishment at home is also lower, compared to countries without bans. However, the presence of a ban does not entirely explain changes in the prevalence and acceptance of corporal punishment over time: for example, corporal punishment may have been declining before the ban was introduced.

Figure 1. Fewer children are victims of corporal punishment in countries with bans

Fewer children experience corporal punishment by teachers in countries with bans

Our new study looks at approval and use of corporal punishment over time, before and after the introduction of the ban; offering insights into the role of legislation on ending violent discipline against children. What emerges is that countries with pre-existing low levels of support for and use of corporal punishment are more predisposed to instituting bans. This could be due to government and citizen alignment on the harmful nature of corporal punishment. Nevertheless, the long-term effectiveness of bans in influencing behavioural and attitude shifts remains uncertain (figure 2). This is backed up by findings from previous research: corporal punishment in schools continues in many countries even where it is legally banned, often with the support of parents.

Trends in parental approval and use of corporal punishment vary starkly across countries with bans—in fact parental approval and use of corporal punishment increased in four of the nine countries surveyed—indicating that additional factors influence attitudes to violent discipline beyond legislative measures. And even where there are more comprehensive bans that explicitly prohibit corporal punishment in all settings, parental use of corporal punishment increases in some countries. This underscores the need for nuanced strategies that extend beyond legislation to address the root causes of corporal punishment.

Figure 2. Countries with bans have lower approval and use of corporal punishment before the introduction of the ban

On average, countries with bans have less corporal punishment before the introduction of the ban

Breaking the intergenerational transmission of violence

Several factors shape parents’ attitudes and behaviours towards corporal punishment. Parental experience of violence being one of them: those who have been victims of violence are more likely to use corporal punishment (figure 3). This highlights the cycle of violence and the need to break it through effective interventions to reduce corporal punishment in school and at home. Parents of daughters are less likely to approve of and use corporal punishment than parents of sons. And wealthier households tend to disapprove of it, although actual usage doesn't significantly differ from poorer households. Accounting for this and understanding which other factors shape individual behaviours should be considered when designing interventions to end corporal punishment.

Figure 3. Parents who were victims of violence are more likely to use and support corporal punishment

Parents who have experienced violence are more likely to support and use corporal punishment

Let’s ban corporal punishment. But much more is needed to keep children safe.

On this year’s International Day to End Corporal Punishment, this form of violence remains common and widely accepted. Despite more countries being on the pathway to prohibition, there’s so much more to be done: a study with eight-year-olds in four countries found that the majority had witnessed a teacher using corporal punishment in the last week. We know a little (but not enough) about what works to eliminate corporal punishment beyond bans: for example, evidence from Uganda and Peru shows that whole school approaches and training school leaders can both reduce teacher-perpetrated violence and increase the likelihood of reporting cases of violence when they happen.

Addressing corporal punishment is a pressing matter that demands more attention from the education sector. Recent advancements in research offer valuable insights that should be integrated into policies and programs. However, significant knowledge gaps persist. Alongside supporting domestic legislation efforts to ban corporal punishment, we need to see increased investment in research to better understand how to ensure the safety of children in schools and concerted action to promote an environment conducive to learning and children’s wellbeing.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.