Tackling several forms of violence together delivers results

2023-11-28

Levels of interpersonal violence remain pervasive and unyielding in South Africa. While a small number of the more extreme cases make headline news, the quarterly South African Police Service crime statistics provide a stark indicator of the extent of the problem.

In the three months from July to September this year, 881 women, 293 children and 5 771 men were murdered. A further 107 646 cases of interpersonal violence including attempted murder, sexual assault, and serious and common assault were also reported to the police. While murders dropped by a slight 0.8% when compared to the same quarter in the previous year, overall violent crime increased by 2.1% or an additional 3 391 incidents.

How does one begin to address this problem? Focusing on intimate partner violence and violence against children is an important place to start. Although these crimes are separate, they are closely related and often co-occur within families. Violence experienced in the home is usually cumulative and drives violence that spills over into schools, workplaces and communities.

Both types of offences have common risk factors. Conflict between intimate partners creates a stressful home environment that can trigger violence. This is often exacerbated by socio-economic stressors such as unemployment, food, and job insecurity. Social norms supporting gender inequality in the household, for example, that men ought to be the breadwinners and women must obey their partners, can also trigger violence if these norms aren’t adhered to.

Given the intersecting nature of violence, it makes sense to address multiple offences simultaneously

Both types of violence also have similar negative consequences, like injury and increased risk of mental illness. The adverse impact of violence in the home can also seriously hinder parents’ or caregivers’ ability to engage in nurturing and responsive parenting, which in turn affects the child’s development.

Imagine a scenario where a male partner is unemployed and feeling the pressure of being unable to fulfil the role of ‘material provider’ in the family. If there is co-occurring alcohol abuse, violence can easily be triggered.

In the context of high stress and intimate partner conflict, one can imagine how violence against children could occur. A stressed caregiver or parent who is frustrated or angered by their child’s behaviour can lash out physically. This scenario is a reality for many families in South Africa.

Children who experience or witness violence at home are more likely to be angry, have less emotional control and use violence themselves. This is how cycles of violence are created and sustained across generations.

This is consistent with a recent study following young South Africans living in Soweto from birth to 30 years old. The findings show that 87% of boys and girls were exposed to four or more forms of violence by the age of 18. Children who were victims of physical, sexual and emotional abuse or who directly witnessed violence were less likely to complete high school. They were also more likely to perpetrate violence in adulthood.

A challenge is that initiatives generally target a single outcome or only one kind of violence

So what is the solution?

We need effective interventions that support human wellbeing and development, remove sources of harm and inequality, and build peaceful societies. This is possible, including in South Africa, where a growing body of evidence shows that carefully developed interventions do prevent violence.

And there are global evidence-based packages, such as INSPIRE and RESPECT, that showcase the best ways to prevent different forms of violence, such as shifting norms that uphold gender inequality and providing quality services to those who have experienced harm.

These packages also show that parenting programmes combined with economic interventions such as cash transfers can reduce and prevent various forms of violence. A challenge is that initiatives generally target a single outcome or only one kind of violence. Given the intersecting nature of violence, it makes sense for them to address multiple offences simultaneously.

A study conducted by researchers from the United Kingdom, United States and South Africa shows that combining elements of effective violence prevention interventions can have many positive results and reduce various types of violence. This has also been identified as a way to simultaneously achieve progress on numerous Sustainable Development Goals.

A combination of prevention strategies reduced children’s experience of physical violence by 51%

For example, when parenting programmes and social grants are in place, they have a greater impact across several outcomes than on their own. Research on this combination of strategies resulted in a reduction in harsh discipline, and improved intimate partner and parent-child relationships. It also found that children were less likely to experience physical violence by 51% and emotional violence by 43%.

A study conducted with adolescents living with HIV in South Africa showed the enhanced effect of combining three violence prevention strategies. These were creating safe schools, access to government grants and parenting support. Results of these interventions showed no perpetration of violence, no reports of emotional or physical abuse, sustained access to HIV care, and significant improvements in mental health outcomes.

Although this is a growing area of research, it holds great possibilities for development, public health and violence prevention. The 2024 national elections are an opportunity for political parties to include effective violence prevention measures in their manifestos.

Parties should base their plans on evidence-based strategies rather than the same-old responses like bolstering police numbers or harsher sentences – which typically start only after a crime has occurred. Preventing violence before it happens is not only cheaper, but has far more significant positive outcomes for communities.

Jody van der Heyde, Global INSPIRE Working Group Coordinator, Justice and Violence Prevention, ISS Pretoria

Image: © Amelia Broodryk/ISS

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Development partners
The ISS is grateful for support from the members of the ISS Partnership Forum: the Hanns Seidel Foundation, the European Union, the Open Society Foundations and the governments of Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.

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