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End this heartbreaking cycle of violence against children

29 Nov 2020 - 12:30

By Shanaaz Mathews, Director of The Children’s Institute, University of Cape Town

Originally published on Sunday Times, 29 November 2020

South African children are surrounded by violence, and too often are the victims of violence in their families, schools and communities. The violence to which they are exposed takes the form of beatings, attacks with weapons, sexual abuse, denigration and humiliation, with long-term effects on their health and social and psychological wellbeing.

We are all deeply affected by reports of abuse and neglect, especially abuse and murder at the hands of those who are meant to protect children. In fact,President Cyril Ramaphosa has called for a national five days of mourning in recognition of those who
have lost their lives to violence against women and children as well as Covid-19.

Child murders in SA are not a rare event, with between two to three children murdered daily. The rate of child murders in SA, at 5.5 per 100,000 children, is more than double the global average. Children under the age of five are most likely to be killed by a parent or carer in their own home. The agonising reality is that young children usually suffer alone they can’t protect themselves nor are they
able to tell someone what is being done to them.

These cases of extreme violence are not unusual. They are the dark end of a continuum of violence in the lives of children. The “Birth to Twenty Plus cohort study ” in Soweto-Johannesburg has followed up on children for more than 27 years. The study reveals the extent of violence to which children are exposed in their homes, schools, communities and in their intimate relationships with peers.

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 point in their lives. Children hear gunshots outside their homes, see learners being beaten up by bullies at school, witness
physical violence between members of their family and hear of the rape and sexual assault of friends. For many, experiencing violence is a fact of life, from living in households where adults fight regularly and physically hurt each other, to beatings with belts
and sticks at four and five years of age, to being pushed, shoved and hit at primary school.

As children reach adolescence, violence increases significantly, especially at school and in the community, and both girls and boys start to experience sexual violence. Sexual violence against boys is likely to be under-reported because of men’s shame and humiliation at being a victim, and it is more likely to take the form of forced touching and oral sex, whereas girls are more likely to be forced into intercourse.


Evidence is clear that experiencing violence during childhood can trigger an intergenerational cycle of violence. Studies from SA and elsewhere show that witnessing abuse of their mother increases boys’ risk of developing violent behaviour and abusing a partner
in adulthood; while for girls, experiences of abuse during childhood increase the risk of them becoming a victim of intimate partner violence.

Experiences of intimate partner violence in turn increase the risk of women using corporal punishment against their own children. It is therefore critical to intervene early and support children and families in order to break this intergenerational cycle of violence. Violence in the lives of children is commonplace. But it is in this cauldron of everyday violence at extreme forms of abuse, neglect and murder bubble up.

Whenever an extreme case hits the headlines, we all ask: “What can be done to stop abuse or murder of a child?” Instead, we need to ask what must be done to stop the daily acts of violence which children see,hear and experience, and to challenge the widespread
acceptance of violence between men and women, and adults and children — including the use of corporal punishment. It is critical that we act together to stop these everyday experiences of violence in order for children to reach their full potential.

Implementing strategies that work to reduce violence in the home, school and community is critical to shift children’s experiences and reduce the long-term effects of violence. But it is imperative that interventions be underpinned by sound evidence of efficacy. Multifaceted approaches, such as the “REAL” intervention in Uganda that combines a parenting programme targeting young fathers with community mobilisation to shift gender norms has shown that it is effective to prevent intimate partner violence and harsh physical punishment of children.

Similarly, in SA Parenting for Lifelong Health has shown that parenting programmes can improve a range of caregiver and child relationships as well household economic outcomes. Importantly, we have learnt that awareness-raising campaigns are not enough there has to be sustained engagement to support behaviour change. SA therefore has to rethink campaigns like the 16 days of
activism for no violence against women and children.

Unless it is accompanied by a sustained investment in prevention, we will not succeed in our efforts to end violence against women and children. The National Gender-Based Violence and Femicide Strategic Plan was approved by the cabinet in March 2020 and provides an opportunity to turn the tide on violence against women and children. The plan is ambitious and incorporates a range of strategies to address violence prevention and response, based on principles such as a multisectoral approach and active
and meaningful participation of communities.

However, for this grand plan to achieve its aim to end gender-based violence — it requires effective leadership at the highest level, matched by a fully costed and dedicated budget that is ringfenced. We know that both prevention and response services aimed at women and children are critically underfunded and facing further cuts. We need big investment from a range of role players and to ensure that the money is used to fund programmes that reach women and children in communities if we seriously
want to turn this around.