In this photo essay I draw on children’s feedback on measures against corporal punishment implemented in ten pilot schools of a child protection programme run collaboratively by Save the Children and the local government in Zanzibar. In order to collect children’s opinions feedback boxes had been installed in the pilot schools at the onset of the programme. I read and evaluated a total of 1,342 of the children’s notes from seven of the pilot schools that had been collected over a period of two years between 2012-2014. The collection of anonymous notes in the boxes was intended to generate insights into the children’s perspectives on the child protection programme that aimed to ban caning as a form of discipline and thus aimed to improve their safety at school.
These notes showed that while many teachers had indeed stopped using the cane to discipline children, others had started to use what were considered alternative forms of discipline like making children pay money or bring school utensils. The little letters revealed that many of the children indeed refused to continue being hit at school as a form of discipline. Others, however, also refused to not be hit. I understand refusal with Audra Simpson as ‘a symptom, a practice, a possibility for doing things differently’ (2017: 29). I suggest that this simultaneous refusal to being hit and to not being hit (for an in-depth discussion see Fay 2021, chapter 4) is more than a ‘no’ directed at corporal punishment or the alternative forms of discipline implemented by international child protection organisations that intend to replace it. Children’s dual refusal elicits the complicated dilemma they face when so called alternatives they are presented with only end up reproducing the injustices they already know.
If refusal is ‘an option for producing and maintaining alternative structures of thought, politics and traditions away from and in critical relationship to states’ (Simpson 2017: 19) then children’s dual refusal (to be hit and to not be hit) question dominant beliefs and practices of child protection. By turning both away from and toward corporal punishment, young Zanzibaris’ refusal to be hit, or to be punished otherwise, suggests the need for child protection actors – both local governments and international aid agencies – to imagine anew how child rights governance at school may be transformed. Childhood as a genuine and important space of critical contestation can only be brought into being through theorisation and scholarly representation (Spyrou, Rosen, & Cook, 2019: 6), if we listen to young people’s refusals beyond the obvious.
While the young people, unsurprisingly, initially agreed to not be hit but to be disciplined otherwise instead, they ultimately refused to accept the new forms of discipline as ‘better’ than hitting. This expression of holding ‘on to the truth’ (Simpson 2017: 26) that being made to pay money or buy brooms as school utensils – the practices viewed as ‘alternative’ or ‘positive discipline’ approaches at the pilot schools – is not a better option than the possibility of enduring some strokes of the cane in a setting where children’s and their families’ lives are affected by poverty.
Thus, instead of condemning corporal punishment, many students favored its continuation or a return to it, likely in correspondence with the negative experiences they had through the implemented ‘alternatives’. The students (see Notes 1 below) that did not refuse corporal punishment argued that the cane should continue in order for students to feel they are disciplined and well-behaved, rule-obeying, respectful, well-mannered, and on time. The students that refused the continuation of physical chastisment (see Notes 2 below) argued that they did so because of illness, pain, injuries, the ineffectiveness of harshness over friendliness, and the fact that they continued to be hit despite the introduction of alternative discipline. And finally, the students (see Notes 3 below) who refused forms of alternative discipline/punishment expressed a refusal to being made to pay money or bring school utensils like brooms in place of being hit, having to involve their parents in the resolution of their own behaviour at school, and being told by their parents to demand being hit again over having to pay.
Rather than an actual approval of caning as a disciplinary practice of preference, their refusals reflect a lack of choice from a child protection system that hopes to serve them but is yet to be decolonized in a way that it centers children’s contextual needs and priorities instead of universalized and potentially decontextualizing children’s rights aspirations only. Children’s contestations of imposed structures reflect, on a broader level, the structural injustices and the unequal distribution of power that is inherent not only to children’s experiences of corporal punishment but also to those initiatives that aim to work against them. While children’s rights activists may agree that children should not be hit at school, children themselves may agree that the alternatives that are being implement in place of hitting are not yet good enough.
By taking seriously children’s refusal – also those that appear counterintuitive – of both corporal punishment and ‘child protection’, decolonial approaches from within childhood studies and anthropology (Cheney 2018, 2020; Fay 2019) that understand refusal as both ‘a research sensibility and a political stance’ (Rosen 2021) may help to oppose simplistic narratives of child protection that may leave children vulnerable to new harms. If as anthropologists and childhood studies scholars we ‘make the practice of ethnography itself a refusal’ (Simpson 2017: 29) – meaning that we understand ethnographic engagement as active questioning of categories like child protection that are frequently understood as beyond the need of critical exploration – we may succeed to contribute to broaden the space for children’s agency to criticise and unmake the structures of power they are subjected to in their own society and by those powers that intervene in them.
 In most of the notes that children wrote they seemed far more concerned with the general hardship they faced at their schools and usually commented on corporal punishment rather as a secondary concern. Among their common demands were: clean drinking water; teachers for disabled students; tiled floors; three instead of four students per desk; sufficient books for every student; tables and chairs for every student; fans; enough teachers, computers, and school busses; to receive medicine when ill; and renovation of school buildings.
Notes 1: “The cane should continue”: Endorsing corporal punishment
The cane should continue. In my opinion we should continue to be hit with the cane because, if you consider, the students come late, they don’t write and they miss school. Thank you. The cane should continue for every student who makes a mistake and who goes against the school’s regulations and rules. When we are hit we listen, we understand and we will be kind. It is better that we are hit because otherwise: a) we would come late, b) we wouldn’t write, c) we wouldn’t respect our teachers, d) we wouldn‘t do as we are told if a teacher sent us somewhere, e) we wouldn’t have manners and we would also do things that are not allowed at school etc. In my opinion we should continue to be hit with the cane because the students lack discipline like latecoming, to cause chaos in the classroom and to not do the work. The canes should continue to be there when a person/student makes a mistake. Thank you. It’s better that we are caned: because if we are not caned we will come late, we won’t write and we will not have manners. Thanks.
Notes 2: “I don’t want to be hit, I’m hurting”: Refusing corporal punishment
(…) we ask that all teachers decrease the caning because some of us are ill and we ask that you not hit us in the head Thank you to all teachers. We ask that there be no canes at our school. If alternative punishment was started and should mean that we students not be hit anymore then why were we hit just today. We students should not be hit. I don’t want to be hit, I’m hurting. Students should not be hit because when they are hit they are hurt (-) so is there alternative punishment or not? (…) the school should have a nice environment and every student should have a computer (,) the school building should have several levels and there should be fans (…) and the caning should decrease including enough teachers. Thank you. The canes should not continue except for troublemakers who deserve a punishment that will make them correct their behaviour in regard to the mistakes they make. Every class should have at least one fan. Our school should painted nicely. The teachers should cane less. There should be more teachers. They should teach with great effort. So the students will pass their exams.
Notes 3: “They take the money our parents give us”: Refusing payments as alternative punishment
The purpose of this letter is to inform you that the teachers are not disciplining us in the way you intended(,) they take our money every day (-) that is the alternative punishment. Alternative discipline is not to be taken away your money. Our parents say it is better that we are hit than having to bring brooms because thereby we cause our parents problems. The teachers teach very nicely but the students are very stubborn. And those who live far should neither be taken away their money nor be made to bring brooms. This is not a real school. We are taken away the money that our parents give us. The purpose of this letter is to inform you that the teachers take away our money every day(,) is this discipline or a payment. Thank you very much. Let us breath with our hard-earned money. Remove the alternative punishments because they hurt those of us who live far. (…) and also to remove the punishment of the brooms because our parents do not have money and also we are students and we depend on our parents. And also decrease the hitting because harshness/severety is not making us understand but the teacher should be friendly with the student because then s/he will be able to understand easily and also (…) our classroom has holes like a prison and we ask that it be renovated. Thanks. And I wish that when we come late we wouldn’t have to contribute brooms but that we are hit instead because these day brooms have become expensive.
Cite as: Franziska Fay, “Children’s Refusal and Child Protection,” in Reimagining Childhood Studies, 23rd June 2021, https://reimaginingchildhoodstudies.com/childrens-refusal-child-protection