Unicef Reveals Violence Used to Discipline Children in Cuba

Photo: El Toque

By El Toque

HAVANA TIMES – The sanction of a teacher who assaulted a 5-year-old child with a wooden instrument in the Sancti Spiritus town of Jarahueca is not an isolated incident. Although few incidents of this type become public on social media, there is a normalization of violence to discipline children in Cuba, both in schools and homes.

A recent report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) Office in Cuba revealed that many families in Cuba apply violent disciplinary methods. The document includes an analysis of 209 studies conducted between 2000 and 2020.

The 2019 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS 6-Cuba) showed significant data. Among them, 41.6% of children and adolescents aged 1 to 14 years were subjected to some form of violent discipline, 29.1% to psychological aggression, and 33.1% to physical punishment. Severe forms of physical punishment are less common, representing 1.6% (the age groups of 5 to 9 years and 10 to 14 years show the highest percentages at 2.5%).

From domestic violence to school bullying, sexual abuse, and forms of digital violence, the report addresses a problem that, although recognized, still requires greater efforts for its eradication.

Violent Parenting

“Throwing a pitcher of water in the face,” “giving a few slaps with a sandal,” and “putting her under the shower with clothes on” were some of the advice given by several mothers on social media to “solve” the misbehavior of a 2-year-old girl.

In response to a mother’s desperation over her daughter’s “tantrums,” very few suggested dialogue, patience, or non-violent methods to calm the little girl and understand her expression of negative emotions.

“The younger you correct her, the better,” some said. “Take her to the psychologist,” others responded. Most agreed that a slap does not cause harm or create trauma for the rest of life.

However, the impact of violence has been documented, and some visible effects vary according to the nature and severity of the incident, but the short and long-term consequences can be devastating.

For example, the study cites, early exposure to violence negatively influences the learning and socialization processes of children and adolescents and fosters violent behavior patterns.

Prolonged exposure to violence during childhood and adolescence can also lead to social, emotional, and cognitive limitations. Individuals subjected to violence at an early age may adopt risky behaviors for physical and emotional health, use addictive substances, initiate sexual relationships early, perform poorly in school, and adopt violent behavior. Often, such behavior is accompanied by anxiety and depression disorders.

The Unicef Cuba study confirmed the normalization of violent punishment among many parents. The “false conception about imposing discipline through abusive acts and the sense of ownership exhibited by mothers, fathers, guardians, and responsible adults accentuates the ‘normalization’ that makes this evil invisible.”

On the other hand, the document revealed that forms of violence also hide in the conception of the family space as a private space where no one should interfere.

The study alludes to how economic problems, daily frustrations, family emigration, and disruptions in family dynamics and functioning can trigger violence against children.

A recent report by the Santiago de Cuba newspaper Sierra Maestra revealed that child labor exists in the territory. Although it is legally prohibited for children under 15 to work (those between 15 and 18 have “special protection”), the text revealed that some students miss school to work.

Angela Jarpe Tellez, director of the Santiago de Cuba IPU-Cuqui Bosch pre-university institute, acknowledged that absences are due to students “doing activities to earn money; such as taking out the trash, mowing a yard, selling bread.” Jarpe Tellez said that the parents of several students “have emigrated and they are left in the care of an uncle, grandmother… so they say they have to survive somehow,” she stated.

Less Recorded Violence

To address violence, one of the most significant limitations identified in the report is the scarcity of studies on child violence in rural areas. Most research has focused on urban areas, particularly in Havana, leaving a gap in information about the situation in rural communities.

The territorial gap in studies is concerning because violence dynamics can vary significantly between urban and rural environments.

As the report acknowledges, factors such as geographic isolation, limited access to support services, and specific cultural norms of rural communities could influence the prevalence and forms of violence against minors.

The lack of data makes it difficult to design effective interventions tailored to the specific needs of rural populations.

Sexual violence against children is another topic that the report addresses with concern. More than 70% of cases of sexual violence are not reported, according to one of the cited studies.

The high level of underreporting can be attributed to multiple factors, including fear of retaliation, shame, social prejudices, and lack of knowledge about reporting channels.

“The reality highlights the need to create more awareness about child sexual abuse, improve reporting mechanisms, and provide greater support to victims,” recommends the text. It also underscores the importance of educating children and adolescents about their rights and how to identify and report abuse situations.

School Violence

Although Unicef Cuba recognizes that most studies on school violence are related to violence among children, there is also violence from teachers towards students.

In this regard, the major expressions of violence are verbal, “as a deterrent when the adolescent disobeys orders or for acts of indiscipline. Teachers exercise both symbolic and explicit violence in the exercise of power based on their pedagogical authority role.”

There is a gender differentiation in the forms of punishment and violence. While blows and pinches are more often directed at boys, threats, humiliations, and devaluations are aimed at girls.

However, the gender bias is more visible among students (physical aggression among boys and humiliations and threats among girls). Girls and young women, the report states, tend to be the most violated —in each form of violence— due to the patriarchal model existing in Cuban society.

The study draws attention to an emerging form of violence in the Cuban context, cyber-violence. With increased access to the Internet and social media in Cuba, children and adolescents are increasingly exposed to risks in the digital environment. These risks include cyberbullying, exposure to inappropriate content, and potentially grooming (online sexual harassment).

Studies on cyber-violence on the island are limited, so the report highlights the urgent need to address the issue. Prevention strategies are required, including digital education for both minors and adults, as well as the implementation of online protection mechanisms.

A crucial aspect highlighted by the report is the need for greater youth participation in the research processes and policy design that affect them. 

The study acknowledges that the new Family Code—which explicitly prohibits the use of physical punishment and any form of violence in parenting—represents an important step towards the legal protection of the rights of children and adolescents in Cuba.

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.

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