Tuesday, 20 February 2018


By Caren Malherbe, Social Worker

Despite the sophisticated legal framework in South Africa there is still a clear majority of children who frequently experience some form of violence from a very early age. Unfortunately, South Africa lacks both national empirical data on the exact magnitude of the problem, and a limited research base on the causes and effects of violence against children in the local context. The limited evidence restricts an understanding of the problem, the effective design and targeting of services, as well as an ability to use evidence-based strategies for prevention.  This essay reviews the latest research to address the following critical questions: • How is violence against children best defined? • What is known about the extent of violence against children in South Africa? • What are the patterns of violence against children across the life course? • What are the immediate and long-term effects of violence against children? • What are the risk and protective factors? • What are the recommendations?

It is not possible to write about violence against children without reflecting on South Africa’s high levels of violence and crime. The underlying causes of violence are complex. It is thought to be rooted in the colonial past and the legacy of apartheid that normalised and created widespread social acceptance of violence.3 Widespread poverty, inequality and high levels of unemployment combined with a weak culture of law enforcement, rapid urbanisation, inadequate housing and poor education outcomes all contribute to social dynamics that fuel violence.4   In addition, apartheid has had a profound effect on family life. The migrant labour system created an environment where large numbers of fathers were largely absent in the lives of their children.5 Racial oppression and the grossly unequal pow (Mathews & Benvenuti, 2014:26)

How is violence against children best defined? Violence against children is a multi-faceted and complex problem. This has resulted in multiple definitions which make it particularly challenging to monitor the incidence of violence, analyse trends and guide actions for prevention and response. The World Report on Violence and Health11 defines violence “as the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, that results or is likely to result in injury, death, psychological harm, mal-development or deprivation”. The UNCRC recognises the complexities of violence pow (Mathews & Benvenuti, 2014:26)
The World Health Organisation extends this definition to include “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against a child, by an individual or group, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in actual or potential harm to the child’s health, survival, development or dignity”.13 The above definitions outline the core components of violence against children and highlight how violence extends beyond physical injuries to include emotional and psychological dimensions, and can occur across a range of settings and relationships. Violence against children can spread from the home to the community and vice versa. For the child this experience is multi-layered and interrelated. For example: a child witnesses his mother being abused by her partner. He is also exposed to harsh parenting, with corporal punishment used as a means of discipline. He seeks affirmation outside (Mathews & Benvenuti, 2014:26)
Violence against children has long-term consequences which can be avoided by investing in prevention initiatives.
With South Africa about to embark on the 16 Days of Activism on No Violence against Women and Children, the South African Child Gauge 2014is released today to contribute to this debate by providing evidence of successful violence prevention initiatives. Published by the Children’s Institute at the University of Cape Town (UCT), the ninth issue of this annual review of the situation of South Africa’s children was produced in partnership with UNICEF, the Programme to Support Pro-Poor Policy Development (PSPPD) in The Presidency; World Vision South Africa; the FNB Fund; and UCT’s Safety and Violence Initiative.
Annually two huge awareness campaigns are launched to raise public awareness of child abuse and family violence.
Child Protection week was initiated to raise awareness about the care and protection of children
The World Health Organisation pronounces child maltreatment as a global problem with serious lifelong consequences. Their studies reveal that a quarter of all adults have been physically abused as children, 1 in 5 woman and 1 in 13 men have been sexually abused as children. Countless children are subjected to emotional abuse and neglect (World Health Centre: Child Maltreatment. Factsheet 2014:1-2).
Given the violence in the South African society, it is probable to believe that children growing up in violent households will return to violence when a situation is unbearable. Roufougar (2007:122) points out that a child will be more likely to commit murder if he grew up in violent surroundings.
The Institute for Security Studies highlighted the high incidence of violent crime in their comments on the 2013/2014 Crime statistics. They also expressed concern about the normalisation of violence in homes, neighbourhoods and schools. They emphasised the fact that most murders take place between people who know each other (ISS Crime Hub: Factsheet 2014:7). 
1. Violence in South Africa:
South Africa is an exceptionally violent society and the incidence of crime and violence are well above world average. It is difficult to establish accurate figures reflecting the incidence of domestic violence due to the fact that there is no reliable statistics available. It is estimated that 60% of marital relationships involve abuse. The number of murders within a family which stem out of the abusive relationships is not known.
Consequently it is inevitable that many children grow up exposed to high levels of violence and abuse in their homes (Robertson & Donaldson.1997:1). The traditional view that the home is a safe haven and sanctuary is untrue given the statistics in South Africa, it is probably the place where children are most at risk for violence and abuse.
Robertson & Donaldson (1997:1) reiterate that numerous children in South African homes are exposed to high levels of violence in their homes.  They confirm that these children will be at risk of committing violent crimes. This childhood trauma will impacted on the child in later life and have a higher risk to be a perpetrator. In these circumstances children learn that violence is an acceptable way of solving problems (Robertson & Donaldson. 1997:5).
Gould (2014:1) mentioned that 827 children were murdered in South Africa during 2012/2013; it is more than two children a day. During this period another 21,575 children, were assaulted, of which half of the assaults being severe. 
In the same year 2,266 women were murdered, and 141,130 women were victims of attempted murder, assault, grievous bodily harm and common assault. A vast percentage of women and children were victims of violence.
Underwood (2013:2) indicated that intrafamilial murders in Britain accounted for 50% of all homicides.
The consequences of violence in the family system where especially children are witnesses of violence in their communities and households have serious consequences on the health system and the ability to raise a next generation of safe and emotionally healthy children.
The National Youth Victimisation Study conducted by The Centre of Justice and Crime Prevention, Cape Town (2005) indicated that South African Youth experience significant violence in their homes, as victims as well as witnesses of violence. These violent disputes often involve the use of a weapon (Pelser.2008:5-6).
Domestic abuse in South Africa is often underestimated in South Africa and it can be argued that South Africa is a hostile environment for children (Idemudia & Makhubela.2011:3447).
It appears as if violence in families are a global occurrence; in a special report of the Department of Justice in the United States which were conducted during 1993 and 2010 it was estimated that 2.8 million children experienced violent crimes in their households  (Truman & Smith.2012:1).
Social acceptance or tolerance of various forms of violence, such as intimate partner violence and corporal punishment is a key factor in the continuation of violence   (Mathews. 2014:54).
Mouzos & Rushforth (2003:1) echoed the view that the family environment can be deadly. In Australia two out of five homicides occur between family members.
These high levels of violence in households in South Africa can affect children and lead to situations in their home environment where they are not able to deal with their emotions and stress levels.
Families are very often idealised and statistics on family violence are underestimated. Ewing (1997) describe the family as undeniably the most violent social group and the home the most violent social setting.

Violence in the family has significant consequences for children and their actions later on in life.
Traumatic stress caused by child neglect and/or abuse compromises homeostasis and leads to an assemblage of long term biological changes involving the nervous and endocrine systems. These changes can affect physiological, emotional, cognitive, and social functioning. These deviations can comprise the ability to regulate, affect, relate to other people, and develop empathy. When confronted with stressful situations (Heide & Solomon.2006:222).  

Family interactions comprise the single greatest determinant of an individual’s level of violence outside the home. Children who are abused, or who witness violence, are far more likely to engage in violence themselves, both as children and when they are adults.
Children living in unbearable circumstances are aware that violence can take place at any given moment. Their home and family cease to be a safe place when interparental violence strikes (Goldblatt. 2003:539).

Violence and emotional assaults on children often attack the norms, trust and certainty of family relationships. There are no sense of family relationships and intimacy, instead the child experience emotional alienation, this alienation can increase with repeated occurrence of violence (Goldblatt. 2003:535).

 Explanation of violence in Families:

Mathews & Benvuti (2014:26) emphasise the high levels of violence and crime against children in South Africa. They reiterate that the underlying causes of violence are complex and illuminate South Africa’s colonial past and the legacy of apartheid that normalised and created widespread social acceptance of violence in the country.  They also accentuate widespread poverty, inequality and high levels of unemployment combined with a weak culture of law enforcement, rapid urbanisation, inadequate housing and poor education as outcomes contributing to social dynamics that fuel violence.
Violence against children is a multi-faceted and without a single explanation to explain why some children experience violence, but it can best be understood as the complex interaction of various factors. (Mathews & Benvuti: 2014:26).

Strain and pressure of daily life is part of every family; families resolve strain differently and often in inappropriate ways. The best parents and most loving couples display unfitting behaviour. They lose their tempers, say intentionally hurtful things to one another, raise their voices when arguing, and sometimes even lash out physically. In many cases aggression is seen as normal. This behaviour is common and culturally approved and seen as part of family life. (Chapter 1)

Families often experience stress because of various factors in their lives, such as work, their financial situation as well as relationships in the family. In violent families there are often chronic, long-lasting stress which influences the behaviour and attitudes of family members.

Burgess & Draper (1989:59) indicate that marital violence, unemployment, financial pressures, anxiety and alcohol abuse can be indicators for family violence.

According to Rae-Grant et al. (1999) risk factors for family violence include the easy availability of weapons, poverty, family conflict and violent adults who had been violent as children. Similarly, based on the available literature on family homicide.

Ewing (1997) recognised five causal factors related to interfamilial homicide: domestic violence, overwhelming social stress, mental illness, alcohol abuse and the availability of firearms.

De Benedictus, T., Jaffe, J., & Segal J (2015:1) emphasise that violence may also be more prevalent amongst families who are experiencing: stress and economic hardship, such as prolonged unemployment.

2.1 Family Structure:

Family structures changed dramatically over the last decades. Carlson, M & Corcoran, M.E (2001:779) raised concern about the consequences about the changes in family structures on children’s development and wellbeing. The change in marriage, divorce and fertility since the 1960’s led to a striking increase in the number of families headed by a single parent. They estimated that half of children born in the 1980s, will spend their lives in a single-parent family.
In South Africa family structures have changed and fragmented due to migrant labour and the impact of HIV/AIDS, This resulted in large numbers of children (39%) being raised in female-headed households or with no parents (23%). Exposure to gang violence, particularly in the Western Cape, where the illegal drug and alcohol economy has flourished and systematically increased the power of gangs has also impact greatly on family structures conflict (Mathews & Benvuti. 2014:32).
Domestic violence also has a significantly negative impact on children’s long-term mental health and can perpetuate the use of violence to resolve conflict (Mathews & Benvuti. 2014:32). 
Families are structured according to social believes and values. This can vary from family to family, social standing as well as different cultures. Within the South African context differentiation must be made between rural and urban families, as well as the social and financial standing of families.

Henslin (2013:2) emphasise the variations of family life among white, African American, Latino, Asian American, and Native American families, the primary differences in families result from cultural differences and social class.

The decline of the traditional family and the changing classifications of families are evident in the significant increase in one-parent, childless, blended, gay and lesbian families. The percentage of U.S. children living with two parents has dropped from 85 percent in 1970 to 70 percent in 2010. Blended families, families that have members who were previously parts of other families, are also on the rise. Gay unions are becoming more public (Henslin.2013:2).

2.2 Cultural factors:

In a multi-faceted country such as South Africa, cultural norms vary significantly from
rural to urban areas as well as the various cultural groups in South Africa.

Cultural values are also recurrently mentioned as a cause of interpersonal violence among poor inner-city African Americans (Lee. 2011:321).

The background of violent crime are the same for black and white people. The treacherous structural deprivation experienced by the urban black population has resulted in temporary traditional revisions to these structural disorders which include the use of violence. Young men use violence as a means to achieve status and respect in their communities. This will decline when socio-economic conditions change (Lee.2011:322).

Cultures and specific structures in families can be important to preface violence. In most families there are frequently levels of authority amongst family members. The most common structure is the one where a father/husband is the authoritarian figure in the house. The spouse often must be subsidiary to their husbands and children’s needs. In some cultures women can often not differ from their husbands.

Little though is given to the long term or immediate effect of violence against children in the African culture, as well as the consequences thereof on the behaviour of children. There is a lack of understanding how an adult’s behaviour could impact on children, and how to deal with these children in a professional way.  Violent behaviour are tolerated in communities and this lead to a malicious circle of violence between adolescents (Idemudia & Makhubela.2011:3457). 
2.3 Family norms:

Wekinson (1995: 6) describes a culture of violence in a family setting where the child has observed violent behaviour as a common occurrence in their family relationships. Frequently their family backgrounds were characterised by a lack of parental love and involved harsh discipline. Research evidence from the United States of America has suggested that children who killed were likely to have had family backgrounds which were characterised by a lack of parental love, involved harsh discipline and which provided inadequate emotional and economic security and stability for the child.

Corporal punishment is widespread in South African homes as a method of punishment despite the fact that it is banned in public spheres. 58% of parents report smacking their children at some point and 33% report using a belt or object to punish their children. Frequent and harsh corporal punishment is emotionally damaging and associated with the development of aggressive behaviour in the long term. Any form of beating teaches the wrong lessons about how to resolve differences, which is not desirable in an already violent society (Mathews & Benvenuti.2014:28).

2.4 Social tolerance of violence and acceptance of violence:

South Africa’s violent past has resulted in a widespread tolerance of violence which enables perpetrators to act with liberty. This is compounded by high levels of poverty, unemployment and income inequality, as well as  patriarchal notions of masculinity that support the use of violence and risk-taking – all which contribute to the extraordinary high levels of violence in South Africa (Mastoera & Mathews 2014: 80).

Craig A. Anderson, C.A, Berkowitz,L, Donnerstein,L, Huesmann,L.R. Johnson,J.D,
Linz, D, Malamuth, N.M., Wartella, E (2003:105) confirms the existing research that divulges the exposure to violent media plays an important underlying role in violence in modern society. Although it is estimated that the effect of media violence are insignificant to modest people should not be misled to think that the overall impact
media violence on aggressive and violent behaviour is trivial. Youth are exposed to many hours of media violence; even a small effect can have extremely large consequences.
A strong predictor of domestic violence in adulthood is domestic violence in the household in which a person was raised. A child’s exposure to their father’s abuse of their mother is the strongest risk factor for transmitting domestic violence from one generation to the next. This cycle of domestic violence is difficult to break because parents have presented violence as the norm. Individuals living with domestic violence in their households have learned that violence and ill-treatment are outlet for anger (De Benedictis et al.2015:1).
Family members often resorts to physical violence because they believe they can solve problems with violence, they can effectively exerted control and power over others and they can get away with their behaviour (De Benedictis et al.2015:1)
Violence between parents in the home, and violence against children by parents or siblings, are factors that contribute to the normalisation of violence. CSVR 2007:170
Many people have been exposed to violence in their domestic or community environments, have been victims of violence, or themselves have been involved in perpetrating acts of violence. The overall impact of this is that people feel overwhelmed by violence, and CSVR 2007:171

2.5 Individual factors contributing to violence:

Violence in families cannot only be explained through social factors, individual factors cannot be ruled out. Mental illness or disorders such as depression, desperation, provocation by the intimate partner, jealousy and anger may be an antecedent of family violence (De Benedictis, T., Jaffe, J., & Segal J. 2015:1).

Consistently violent families have experienced chronic and long-standing stress which influences the behaviour and attitudes of family members. Violence may also be more widespread amongst families who experience the additional stresses of poverty, unemployment and inadequate housing (Henslin, 1995; Hewitt, 1997).

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