School ought to be a safe place to get an education. This idea, which seems simple enough, couldn't be further from reality for millions of children in Africa.
In Uganda the positive step of opening up free primary school education to all children has brought with it increased class sizes and brought to light a problem that many parents and teachers had been unaware of. Corporal punishment remains the mainstay of school discipline despite overwhelming evidence that it doesn't work.
There are more than 13 million children in school in Uganda, yet, unlike in its neighbour Kenya, there is no law prohibiting corporal punishment or bullying. Despite laws which are meant to outlaw sexual violence in schools, girls and boys still experience this abuse on a shocking scale.
Children in schools continue to live in fear of violence in spite of the official ban and national guidelines on alternative approaches to child discipline by teachers.
Research by the African Network for the Prevention and Protection against Child Abuse and Neglect involving 67,449 children in 90 primary schools found that corporal punishment has led to poor school attendance, poor performance, poor behaviour, dropping out and child abuse. In Uganda, violence against children is a growing social problem with two thirds of victims being girls.
The commonest forms of violence included caning, slapping, shouting, pinching, sexual abuse, and insulting. A Save the Children study in 2005 revealed that almost every child in the East African country has been the victim of some sort of violence. An appalling 60 per cent of schoolchildren said that they are routinely beaten and humiliated at school, despite many teachers saying they do not hit children. Three-quarters of the children spoken to had experienced sexual violence and as many as one in five girls and one in eight boys had been forced to have sex.
These are some of the terrifying statistics that British charity ChildHope had to contend with when setting its goal of creating safer schools in Uganda. "The idea is to get parents, teachers and communities talking and to get them to listen to their children," said ChildHope's partnerships and programme manager Allan Kiwanuka.
"At first when we spoke to teachers they all said they didn't beat children, but when we spoke to the children they told us that they were regularly being caned. When we asked them, teachers would say they had no choice but to use the cane as the children were too hard to manage."
The unintended consequence of the big push on primary education – one of the success stories of the increased foreign aid spending in Africa over the past 10 years – has been hugely increased class sizes. In Uganda it's not unusual for a single teacher to take a class of more than 100 children.
ChildHope is working with 50 schools to convince parents and teachers that an "alternative discipline" is possible.
"When we spoke to children, we got the strongest message that they want teachers to stop beating them," said Mr Kiwanuka.
The programme aims to show teachers that there are more effective ways of controlling classes than the cane. By making children's rights part of the schooling process, improving school inspections, getting police to act in serious incidents of violence and giving children a voice at schools, the charity hopes to demonstrate that there's a better way of doing things. "Beating a child doesn't change his or her behaviour; they just get used to being beaten," said Mr Kiwanuka.
He admits that it will take time to change attitudes that are seen as traditional: "Some people feel that children have been beaten since time immemorial, so why change?"
Increasing violence in the classroom is part of the reason why, despite the goal of universal education, only two-thirds of boys finish primary school and even fewer girls, at 44 per cent, complete their studies. If talking can be proven to work better than caning with 25,000 children in Uganda then the project could be rolled out across the rest of the region.
"The first 50 schools will hopefully create a model for the rest of Africa," said Mr Kiwanuka.
The charities in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal
Children around the world cope daily with problems that are difficult for most of us to comprehend. For our Christmas Appeal this year we have chosen three charities which support vulnerable children everywhere.
* Children on the Edge was founded by Anita Roddick 20 years ago to help children institutionalised in Romanian orphanages. It specialises in traumatised children. It still works in eastern Europe, supporting children with disabilities and girls at risk of sex trafficking. But it now works with children in extreme situations in a dozen countries – children orphaned by AIDS in South Africa, post-tsunami trauma in Indonesia, long-term post-conflict disturbance in East Timor, and with Burmese refugee children in Bangladesh and Thailand. www.childrenontheedge.org
* ChildHope works to bring hope and justice, colour and fun into the lives of extremely vulnerable children experiencing different forms of violence in 11 countries in Africa, Asia and South America. www.childhope.org.uk
* Barnardo's works with more than 100,000 of the most disadvantaged children in 415 specialised projects in communities across the UK. It works with children in poverty, homeless runaways, children caring for an ill parent, pupils at risk of being excluded from school, children with disabilities, teenagers leaving care, children who have been sexually abused and those with inappropriate sexual behaviour. It runs parenting programmes. www.barnardos.org.uk