A study published in March about children in Soweto-Johannesburg – which has followed their development from birth for more than 27 years, reveals the extent of violence to which children are exposed to in their homes, at school, in their communities and in their intimate relationships with peers. Children hear gunshots outside their houses, see learners being beaten up by bullies at school, witness physical violence between members of their family, and hear of rape and sexual assault of friends. Only a handful (1%) of the close to 2 000 children studied across their childhoods had not been exposed to severe forms of violence at some time in their lives.
This intervention was the main focus of a seminar hosted by the Centre for Social Development in Africa (CSDA) on Monday, 15 May 2018, to focus on violence in the lives of children in South Africa.
“Daily we are confronted in the media with stories of violence in the lives of children in South Africa. Social workers and social service professionals have highlighted the gravity of the issue in their daily work. Why is it that twenty years after democracy, we have not been able to make an impact in reducing violence in the lives of our children?” asked Prof Leila Patel, Centre for Social Development in Africa (CSDA) Director at the University of Johannesburg.
“Poverty is undoubtedly a significant risk factor for compromised child well-being, and we know that many things need to work together in the home, the family and the outside world to enhance the quality of the lives of our children,” said Prof Patel.
Very large numbers of children are also victims of violence. Two thirds of parents report that they regularly beat their 4-5 year-olds with sticks, belts, straps and shoes. More than 80% of children in their primary school years, and more than 90% during their secondary school years report being a victim of violence at home, school, in their community, or their intimate relationships.
Presenting the findings of the study at the seminar was Prof Linda Richter, Distinguished Professor and Director of the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Human Development at the University of the Witwatersrand. The NRF A1-rated scientist stated that: “A third of children reported experiencing all forms of violence studied: exposure to violence in their community, in their school and at home; peer violence; being a victim of non-sexual violence, and sexual violence, with a greater proportion of boys (44%) experiencing this kind of pervasive violence. Violence is concentrated in the lives of mainly poor Black children, where criminal, community and school violence spills into their homes and leaks into their close relationships.”
“The unique birth cohort study, Birth to Twenty Plus, which started enrolling pregnant women in 1990 and has followed them and their children annually for more than 20 years, demonstrates the saturation of violence in the lives of South African youth. Poly-victimized, as these children in South African are, they experience increased stress and helplessness. This can lead to poor mental health, impaired social relationships and substance abuse, with implications for their educational progression, work productivity and social stability,” explained Prof Richter.
“Children growing up in Soweto-Johannesburg during the last two decades were likely to be exposed to chronic violence in all aspects of their lives. With few safe spaces at home, school or in their community, they are at risk of becoming insensitive to violence, uncaring towards others and potentially violent themselves. In fact, the study points to already high levels of violent behaviour, with more than two-thirds of school-aged children in the study reporting that they themselves have behaved violently towards others.”
“The question is often asked — why is South Africa such a violent society? The answer is multi-faceted, historical, rooted in the wars, colonialism and oppression by which control of the country has been sought and won. But violence is being perpetuated daily in the lives of children by interpersonal aggression between parents, between parents and children, teachers and learners, amongst learners themselves, and between associates and strangers in the communities in which they live and work.”
Prof Richter pointed out that: “The short- and long-term costs of violence are very high, with repercussions on subsequent generations. Estimates made in 2016, supported by Save the Children, put the costs of violence due to death, ill-health and mental health, reduced earnings and welfare costs at some R238 billion, roughly 6% of South Africa’s Gross Domestic Product.”
Prof Shanaaz Mathews, Director at UCT Children’s Institute also spoke briefly at the seminar and has been working closely with Prof Richter. Along with other experts in the field, they believe that the prevention of violence has to be a priority for everyone in South Africa. Similar findings are reported from studies in other parts of South Africa. As long as children are exposed to the high levels of violence described in this study, violence will increase. Children who experience or are exposed to violence carry the damage done to them through fear and insecurity. This makes it more likely, as adults, they will hit out first.
More research is needed to deepen our understanding of how violence affects the child across their life-course. Exploring these multiple pathways to victimisation and perpetration can provide direction on strategies to break this cycle. Building on this study, the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Human Development aims to bring together leading academics and thought leaders in the area of violence and violence prevention to outline the key questions that we still need to address to make South Africa safer.