No country for kids: for too many, home is a hell

Shocking new study reveals how violence is norm for children

18 March 2018 - 00:00 By TANYA FARBER
Many of the 99% who had been exposed to violence, nowhere was safe: peers, parents, teachers and neighbours were all perpetrators.
Many of the 99% who had been exposed to violence, nowhere was safe: peers, parents, teachers and neighbours were all perpetrators.
Image: 123RF/canjoena

Footage of a four-year-old being beaten by her mother in Durban as the mother's boyfriend casually crossed his legs on the bed and filmed the incident, shows "just the tip of the iceberg".

This is according to Professor Linda Richter, and she should know: Richter has spent 28 years tracking a cohort of more than 2,000 children since they were in the womb in 1990.

Some of the findings, just published in the South African Medical Journal, shocked even the researchers: over the 28 years, only 1% of the 2,300 youngsters in Soweto, Johannesburg, had not been exposed to violence in the community, home, or school.

"What also really shocked us," said Richter, head of the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Human Development at the University of the Witwatersrand, "was not only that 99% of the cohort had been exposed to violence during their childhood, but that over 60% in every single age group had actually experienced [been the direct victims of] personal violence".

"I don't think any of us ever thought that all through childhood, violence would be so consistent among such a large proportion of children. It brought home to us more than ever how pervasive violence is in the lives of children," Richter explained.

For many of the 99% who had been exposed to violence, nowhere was safe: peers, parents, teachers and neighbours were all perpetrators.

The study also highlights intergenerational violence, says Richter: 43% of the children were born to mothers who had themselves been exposed to violence, or experienced it, during pregnancy and their own childhood.

According to the Perinatal Mental Health Project at the University of Cape Town, "domestic violence during pregnancy can negatively affect you and your baby. Sadly, we know that it is uncommon for pregnant women to seek help if they are being abused. It also means that abused women may avoid visiting their clinics for pregnancy care".

The cycles of violence are also red-flagged by the high level of perpetration by children themselves.

In the study, around two-thirds of primary school children had perpetrated violence, and among adolescents (14 to 17) just under 90% had.

IN NUMBERS

• 50% of children under six are exposed to violence in their homes

• 90% of primary school children are exposed to violence at school

"In many other countries, the line between child victims of violence and their perpetrators is far more clear," said Richter, "but here in South Africa, the line is much thinner."

Another finding that shocked the researchers was that among 14 to 17-year-olds, more boys than girls had experienced sexual abuse. "It is something that has been ignored," said Richter.

Abuse of girls was associated with poor self-esteem and lack of assertiveness, and selectiveness in sexual relationships; whereas with boys, it commonly led to them becoming perpetrators of sexual and other forms of violence, especially since boys were also more physically abused in the home than girls, added Richter.

Many boys in this age group have been touched inappropriately and had forced oral sex; and with girls, more forced penetration is reported.

Another red flag is violence at school: around 90% of children are exposed to violence at primary school, and for adolescents it is around 50%.

As with the Durban girl, the case of Sizwe Kubheka - beaten to death with a belt by his teacher in Palm Springs in 2014 - is just the tip of the iceberg: violence perpetrated by teachers and pupils has become the norm in many schools.

For Jazlin Sentamu, now nine, it was simply the misfortune of being out in her stroller while with her mother in Lavender Hill, Cape Town, when she was two. A gangster's stray bullet hit her in the back and paralysed her for life.

The words of Michelle Louw, her aunt, reveal how witnessing violence becomes normality: "Jazlin was one of the first children to be shot here in Lavender Hill."

"I don't think it will ever change here. Back in the day the gangsters used to fight with bricks and sticks, and even then we didn't feel safe. In the last two decades, it is gunfire," said Louw.

Often, home is the furthest thing from a haven. "Close to half of preschool children were reported to have been victims of violence, most often through harsh physical punishment by their parents," said Richter.

"We need sensitisation of parents ..."