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Effects of corporal punishment ban in Sweden

How a ban on corporal punishment has affected child protection in Sweden

Ms Mali Nilsson

Global Advocacy and Policy Advisor-Violence and Abuse and
Chair of the International Save the Children Alliance Task Group on
Corporal Punishment and all other forms of Degrading Punishment

Stockholm July 2006-07-12

Sweden got a law against corporal punishment in 1979. The legal provision is today a part of the Children and Parental Code, Chapter 6, Custody and Access, and reads as follows:

"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."

The purpose of forbidding all corporal punishment was NOT to punish nor to criminalize harassed parents. Instead the purpose was to satisfy children’s human rights, by giving children equal protection of their physical integrity and human dignity. The law gives a clear message that hitting children is wrong!

The goals of the ban were to:
- Alter public attitudes towards corporal punishment, and
- To establish a clear framework for parent education and support.

The law against corporal punishment in the Children and Parental Code does not contain any penalty. Milder forms are not punished and more severe forms are punished according to the Penal Code.

An Obligation to Report among professionals and authorities such as Child-Care, School, Health, and Social Services accompanied the Law. In practical this means that for example; it is a nurse or a teacher’s duty to report in any case where he or she is suspicious of child abuse. The change in the law made it clear that violence is never a private matter.

At the time of passing this law the Ministry of Justice took strong action to make it known to the wider public. There were information campaigns on TV and in other media in various languages. In this way a large majority of the population got to know the new provision.

At the time, the ban on corporal punishment was considered a radical measure in the surrounding world. Many international comments ridiculed it or viewed it as an intrusion into private life. A threat to the liberty of parents in bringing up their children. We often still meet these reactions – not in our country today– but from people in other countries.

It is important to note that the government was never accused of meddling in family life. Parents in Sweden believe that children can and should be disciplined and made subject to clear parental controls but that this can be achieved without inflicting violence. The law reform resulting in dramatic changes in behaviour and attitudes was therefore never very controversial.

From the legal point of view all holes in the law has now been closed in such a way that nobody can any longer justify the use of violence by claiming that it was necessary or reasonable. But the task of making this known and influence attitudes, as well as offering parents support on positive parenting is a never-ending work in my country.

The way to the establishment of this law has been rather long. But in the years that have passed since 1979 WE have learned that: it is indeed possible to bring up our children using other means than corporal punishment!

Impact assessment of the ban

In 1999 the Swedish Government created a parliamentarian committee to investigate child abuse and related matters, the purpose by doing this was as well to evaluate the impact of Sweden’s ban on physical punishment. The long-term objective for The Committee on Child Abuse and Related Issues was to create:

- better conditions for the prevention of child abuse
- better cooperation between the authorities
- better knowledge among the professionals
- better opportunities to provide support and assistance to abused children.

The creation of the committee was also a part of the Swedish strategy to implement the UN-convention on the Rights of the Child.

In Spring 2000 the above-mentioned Committee carried out a Study consisting of:
* interviews with 1000 parents, representing the whole nation, concerning their use of corporal punishment as a tool in the bringing up of their children;
* a nationwide classroom questionnaire completed by 2000 children, between 11 to 13 years of age, about their experiences of and attitudes to corporal punishment;

Corporal punishment as a method of bringing up children has decreased

Available data on corporal punishment of children tells us that during the 1960s it was commonplace that parents spanked their children especially during the pre-school years. Our data from 2000 indicates that the use of corporal punishment has decreased dramatically in the past 40 years, particularly when it comes to beating of children with fists or some sort of instrument, or spanking them.

In the National parental studies, 51% of the parents in 1980 said that they had used corporal punishment the previous year, 20 years later in 2000 this figure had decreased to only 8%.

In the National Children’s studies, 65% of the children in 1994 said they had never experienced child abuse. These figures had increased to 86% in 2000.

Another Study from the National Council for Crime Prevention (BRÅ) on family violence against pre-school children shows us that there is an increased tendency to report cases to the police, BUT the number of serious injuries had decreased in proportion to milder cases and cases without any established injury. The vast majority of reported assaults are for petty or common offences, suggesting that the majority of children are being identified BEFORE serious injury occurs.

The conclusion is therefore that child abuse in Sweden has decreased. The Committee also came to the conclusion that the increase in the cases of child abuse reported to the police is the result of increased awareness and support to parents– not an increased tendency to beat children. Instead it shows that we no longer in Sweden tolerate violence against children!

When one compare all studies one can prove that there are still only about 4 per cent of schoolchildren (11-15 years old) who state that they have been subjected to severe corporal punishment with some sort of instrument on at least one occasion in their lives.

The conclusion one can draw based upon these results is that parents in Sweden NO LONGER believe in corporal punishment as an effective method of bringing up children.

Attitudes towards corporal punishment of children have changed greatly

The proportion of Swedish adults having a positive attitude to the corporal punishment of children was 53% in 1965 and in 2000 10%. This shows that there has been a sharp and consistent decrease in positive attitudes to spanking over a nearly forty-year period.

Schoolchildren’s attitudes towards Corporal Punishment have become considerably negative during the 1990’s. The proportion of pupils who can accept being hit by a parent decreased from 20% to 5% between 1990 and 2000.

It is not easy to explain the dramatic change in attitudes. But it is clear, that schoolchildren are much more aware of their civil rights now than earlier, mainly due to information on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as provided in schools and often by non-governmental organisations.

One could positively say that attitudes towards corporal punishment of children have changed greatly to the better.

Trends in the criminal justice system

The proportion of reported assaults that are legally pursued without trial has remained steadily, while the prosecution rate has shown a declining trend. Therefore there has been NO increase of parents being drawn into the criminal justice system for minor assaults.

Nor has there been an increase in children being removed from parents through the intervention of social workers. Quite the reverse: the number of children coming into care has decreased by 26% since 1982.

Trends in Youth Crime

It might be supposed that, without corporal punishment, children are being reared who lacks discipline and self-control. However, overall rates of youth crime have remained steady since 1983. The proportion of individuals convicted of theft who are between the ages of 15 and 17 years has declined by 21 % since 1975. The proportion of suspects in narcotics crimes who are in this age group has declined by 75% since 1970.

It is too simplistic to say that there is a direct causal link between Corporal Punishment and these social trends, but the evidence presented here indicates that the ban on Corporal Punishment has had NO negative effects.


The reasons behind the positive development in Sweden is probably
- Continuing propaganda against physical punishment and humiliating treatment of children in the past 40 years,
- Combined with the law against corporal punishment, and
- Education of the most important professionals groups such as teachers, social workers, police, about children at risk.

One could say that the decreasing use of corporal punishment parallels the increasing negative ATTITUDES towards corporal punishment, in both adults and children.

The Swedish Ban on Corporal Punishment has led to the following results:
1. Public support for corporal punishment has declined,
2. Identification of children at risk has increased,
3. Child abuse mortality is rare,
4. No flood of trivial actions have occurred, as prosecution rates have remained steady,
5. Social service intervention has become increasingly supportive and preventive.

The Final Conclusion is that:
The Swedish ban has been highly successful in accomplishing its goals

The law clearly shows that it is indeed possible to change attitudes and the use of corporal punishment of children by introducing legislation like ours. In dealing with cases of abuse that still occur, we need good measures and interventions to help the children and their families.

Hitting children is as unacceptable as hitting anyone else, and it is vital that the Law clearly says so!

In my capacity as the Chair of the International Save the Children Task Group on Corporal Punishment and all other forms of Humiliating Punishment I warmly welcome the initiative in New Zealand to remove the defence of reasonable defence from the legislation, we very much need to keep up our work to afford children Equal Protection so to Realise the Rights of the child!


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