What we do to our children

They are either beaten by their parents, sexually abused by acquaintances or bullied on the playground. This is what almost all children in South Africa experience or are exposed to before they turn 18.

These findings have just been released by the Birth to Twenty Plus (Bt20+) study, conducted by the department of science and technology and the National Research Foundation Centre of Excellence in Human Development at Wits University

One of the horrifying results that came out of the study was the fact that 99% of children had witnessed violence or been a victim of it.

Researchers of the Bt20+ project, now in its 28th year, began studying 3 273 babies and their mothers in Soweto in early 1990 to collect data to assess the many dimensions of a child’s growth, including their health, educational performance, social functioning, and the experience of and exposure to violence.

Professor Shanaaz Mathews, director of the University of Cape Town’s Children’s Institute and a researcher on the study, says that violence is a daily experience for children – and not just in Soweto.

She said the study’s findings held true for South Africa at large because “Soweto is similar to many other South African townships”.

“We should understand the impact of violence on children more than we assume it, and we need intervention and preventive measures,” she said.

Professor Linda Richter, the centre’s director, said the study found that “violence against children is not only stuck within the home – in fact, it is stretching right into the community. This says violence is completely pervasive in the lives of children.”

Researchers studied six categories of violence to which children are exposed, including at home, at school, in their communities or among peers, as well as direct experiences of violence. Sexual violence formed a separate component.

The study found that boys and girls have generally similar rates of exposure and experiences of violence during childhood.

But more girls – particularly those between the ages of 14 and 17 – were exposed to violence at home and have had more personal experiences of violence.

Boys aged between 18 and 22 were exposed to peer and community violence, while those between seven and 17 experienced more sexual violence.

The study further found that all types of violence meted out increases with age until young adulthood, and peaks among children aged between 14 and 17.

More boys than girls reported sexual abuse in the seven to 17 age bracket. In addition, younger or physically weaker boys from poor households who live with single mothers with low levels of education are more likely to be victims of sexual violence.

Intervention is critical

The study also looked at children as perpetrators of violence, finding that about half of all children up to the age of 13 commit acts of violence such as hitting, kicking, biting or shoving other children.

When it comes to physical violence among children, the study found that it peaks during the 14 to 17 age bracket among boys and girls, with nine out of 10 respondents committing it.

By young adulthood, men are twice as likely to perpetrate violence compared with women.

Mathews said physical child abuse was most prevalent among children younger than five.

“It’s a form of violence that often takes place in the context of the home, where the caregiver will use harsh physical punishment as a form of discipline.

“At a very young age, children are unable to make sense, for example, of harsh physical discipline from a caregiver. This means the whole attachment between caregiver and child that should be a nurturing safety net for the child becomes very disorganised,” she said.

This disorganised attachment shapes how the child forms, particularly in their interpersonal relationships with intimate partners and their own children in the future.

Mathews said children often experienced violence in multiple settings and this had a cumulative effect because of the child’s vulnerability.

“A child who experiences violence at home is at a high risk of experiencing violence at school and in the community.”

Mathews added that boys and girls dealt with violence differently.

Girls, she said, internalised violence meted out against them, which led to anxiety and mental distress. Added to this, girls who witnessed violence against their mothers were likely to tolerate it later in their adult intimate relationships.

She said boys who were victims of violence resolved conflict through physical fights and engaged in delinquent behaviour.

“Boys who have witnessed violence against their mothers are likely to take the violence into their interpersonal relationships,” said Mathews.

Intervention is critical to prevent long-term and continued destructive behaviour, where men and women perpetuate the cycle of violence with their own children.

Five-year-old Xola* from Turffontein, Johannesburg, was killed by his father. His little sister Liz* (3) saw it all.

Xola lived with his father, stepmother and three other siblings – Lulu* (14), Peter* (10) and Liz.

He had previously lived with his mum and grandmother before moving in with the blended family.

His stepmother is employed as a cashier, while his father is unemployed.

Xola shares a father with Liz and they spent their days together while their other siblings were at school and their stepmother was at work.

One afternoon after work, the stepmother found Xola sleeping in the bedroom and had a hunch that something wasn’t right.

She decided to wake him up and help him to the toilet before going to watch TV. The stepmother says he was talking and he looked normal.

When he stood up, she says, he collapsed. She undressed him and noticed that his body was bruised. The neighbours were called to help.

One of the neighbours noticed that Xola was not breathing.

Little Liz, who was always at home with her father and Xola, had seen how her father physically abused her brother, and she now acts out what she had witnessed, says the stepmother.

The father has since been convicted of murder.

*Not their real names