Ph.D. student Jorge Cuartas testifies before the Colombian Congress in October 2019
Photo courtesy of Jorge Cuartas
Despite the adverse effects of physical punishment on a child’s development, including increased antisocial behavior and higher risks of depression and other mental health problems, only 53 countries have outright banned the practice. In fact, in Colombia, a country that has been rocked with civil conflict for over half a century, corporal punishment continues to be seen by many as an acceptable punishment for children.
It was unclear just how pervasive corporal punishment in Colombia was until education Ph.D. student Jorge Cuartas made it his mission to shine a light on the practice in his home country and work to ban its use. An economist, Cuartas was a research assistant examining the impact of the Colombian Civil War on displaced citizens when he began to trace the connection between violence occurring at the national level and violence impacting children.
“I was at the Universidad de Los Andes, working with the displaced population of Colombians, and I made the connection between the psychological consequences of war and violence on parental practices,” Cuartas says. “These people were receiving economic support, but we weren’t thinking about the consequences for these young children living in this context and the cycle of violence that was going on.”
Beyond the shock of the testimonies of parents citing the use of violence to discipline their children, Cuartas was also stunned by the lack of research highlighting the problem of corporal punishment in Colombia. Using data from Colombia’s Demographic and Health Surveys, Cuartas produced one of the first studies to make visible the prevalence of corporal punishment in the country. He found that in 2015, nearly 1.7 million children, or almost 40% of children under the age of 5, were exposed to physical punishment.
“And this was at a time when violence had been decreasing nationally,” Cuartas says. “So, for me, it became fundamental to define strategies aimed at protecting children and to influence policymakers to pay attention to this issue.”
At HGSE, Cuartas worked with his adviser, Assistant Professor Dana McCoy, to place Colombia’s incidence of corporal punishment in a wider global context. Using data from UNICEF’s Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys of women and children in low- and middle-income countries, Cuartas found that, despite decades of efforts to educate caregivers about the dangers of using physical violence on children, hundreds of millions of 2- to 4-year-olds were still being exposed to aggressive physical and psychological discipline.
Cuartas set out to influence policymakers to pay attention. Despite nearly half of Colombians approving of parental use of physical punishment, Cuartas spent two years lobbying the Colombian Congress to take up the issue of corporal punishment. At the same time, he began working with the Colombian Institute for Family Welfare (ICBF), which leads child and family policy in the country, to design interventions to reduce corporal punishment. His work helped convince ICBF to prioritize the topic of corporal punishment in their policy agenda this year.
“Jorge's work is unique not only because it draws attention to violence-related issues in an under-represented context, but also because it uses the most advanced statistical methods available to convincingly establish the negative consequences of corporal punishment and community violence on children's developmental outcomes,” McCoy says. “Jorge's work is not only impacting public opinion and policy in Colombia but is also advancing the field of developmental psychology as a whole.”
In October, Cuartas’ efforts brought him front and center of the issue when he was invited to testify before the Colombian Congress as they debated a new law to ban corporal punishment, a law that cites several of Cuartas’ research findings on the lasting effects of corporal punishment on children.
“It was amazing,” Cuartas says. “There was one representative openly against the law who said spanking was good, but in the end, I felt I convinced her of the risks. It was very exciting.”
Having accomplished so much already, Cuartas has no plans to slow down. This year he has another report coming out, coauthored with Harvard University psychology professor Katie McLaughlin, which shows the neurobiological impact of corporal punishment on a child’s brain.
“I was very surprised to find that corporal punishment affects the same brain areas that are affected by severe physical and sexual abuse,” Cuartas said. “The magnitude was lower, but to see that spanking impacts a child’s brain development in the same way was a big surprise.”
In addition to his academic study, Cuartas is continuing to work with the ICBF to scale interventions for families across Colombia, and he is co-directing the nonprofit Apapacho, which provides families in Bogotá, Colombia, with workshops and resources aimed at fostering positive parental practices.
“We’re beginning to see a global change of how corporal punishment is considered, and now it is easier to see that it is not effective and that there are alternatives. I am absolutely hopeful.”