Picture caption: Sonke Gender Justice
6 June 2021 by Shanaaz Mathews and Lizette Berry
We are once again coming to the end of another Child Protection Week. The aim of the week is primarily to raise awareness of the rights of children to be protected from violence and abuse, as enshrined in the constitution.
This week there has been a call for a whole-society response — for us all to come together and support the call to stop the cycle of neglect, abuse, violence and exploitation of children. We have to ask ourselves whether drawing the country’s attention once a year to the need to stop violence against children is enough when we are acutely aware of the ongoing high levels of violence against children, and this is a shame we as a nation have to account for. Child protection must be prioritised at the highest level of government if we are to see significant improvements in the wellbeing of children in SA.
The Birth to Twenty+ (Bt20+) study provides harrowing insights about violence in the lives of children in SA. We found that nearly all children (99%) born in Soweto in 1990 had experienced or witnessed some form of violence. Importantly, more than 40% of this group of young people had multiple experiences of violence in their homes, schools and communities. The Bt20+ study also found that experiences of violence start early; nearly half of preschool age children were reported to have experienced physical punishment by parents or caregivers and that physical punishment is often used as a method of discipline.
Experiencing violence as well as exposure to violence in the home is especially damaging during the first 1,000 days of a child’s life. The impact of excessive physical and psychological trauma like domestic violence can result in what is known as toxic stress. Such experiences can disrupt the development of the brain in the absence of a nurturing caregiver to buffer the negative effects.
Early exposure to extremely fearful or stressful events, and recurring events such as conflict in the home or physical abuse from a mother or caregiver affect the developing brain, particularly in those areas involved in emotional regulation and learning.
This early exposure has significant lifelong effects such as impaired school readiness, poor school performance and both negative physical and mental health outcomes. Long-term health risks include diabetes, lung disease, arthritis and high blood pressure.
Emotional security is as important as physical safety and protection. A secure caregiver-child attachment in the early years is the foundation for a healthy self-concept, relationships in adulthood, and promotes trust and a sense of belonging, contributing to the development of social-emotional competencies such as self-control and self-motivation. Adverse childhood experiences, particularly neglect or abusive parenting, are all pathways for young boys to become perpetrators of violence in the home and community.
Violence prevention therefore starts in the home with family and parental relationships. Responsive, nurturing caregivers, whether biological or not, are critical to enable early development and protect children from harmful elements or risks in their environment.
In turn, caregivers need enabling environments such as access to work, affordable housing, childcare, and income support such as social grants. Government policies, programmes and systems must create a conducive environment that supports caregivers in their parenting roles.
Work from other countries in Africa shows a need to better understand the gendered dimensions of violence because gender inequality and violence are mutually reinforcing. There is an increasing recognition that unequal gender norms drive violence at an individual and societal level.
In SA, as in other patriarchal societies, social and cultural norms provide the space to tolerate men’s violence towards women and children. Evidence shows that men’s use of violence and controlling behaviour towards an intimate partner often extends to the use of physical punishment of their children as a means of discipline. Importantly, research with women who experience violence at the hands of a partner shows that such women are more likely to use physical punishment to discipline their children, thus driving an intergenerational cycle of violence.
With the large numbers of children experiencing violence in the early years, intervening early is critical to break this intergenerational cycle. Identifying families who are struggling is the first step. Evidence of what works to prevent violence in the lives of children in the early years is emerging.
Parenting and caregiver-support programmes have been identified as a promising strategy to improve family dynamics, address gender inequality and prevent violence against children and women. Promoting caring relationships and communication between parents and children underpins secure attachment between parents and their children – including a focus on men as fathers.
Starting early also means providing information on parenting and preparing expectant parents for all aspects of parenting, including promoting positive parenting. Building skills to manage child behaviour through positive reinforcement and modelling healthy strategies for conflict management are critical in a country where harsh forms of parenting, intolerance and violent resolutions to conflict are the norm. Developing parental emotional self-regulation skills is as important, as trauma runs deep and also affects a caregiver’s ability to parent.
Promoting gender-equitable relationships in the family is also critical as this can reduce violence against women and children over extended periods. This will, however, require leadership and early investment from the state to ensure all children have the best chance to reach their full potential.
[This article was originally published in the Sunday Times on June 6, 2021.]