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The Birth to Twenty Plus (Bt20+) study, led by the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Human Development at Wits University sheds light on violence in the lives of children.

The Birth to Twenty Plus (Bt20+) study, led by the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Human Development at Wits University sheds light on violence in the lives of children.

Using information collected from the longitudinal study which has followed the development of more than 2000 children and their families in Soweto-Johannesburg for more than 27 years, the study reveals the extent of violence to which the children are exposed to, either directly (as victims or perpetrators) or indirectly (as witnesses). 

The researchers studied six categories of violence to which children are exposed, including at home (seeing parents physically fighting), at school (seeing a child beat up another), in the community (hearing gunshots), amongst peers (witnessing gang violence), personal experiences (being victims of violence), sexual violence (rape), as well as perpetration of violence (picking a fight, forcing someone to have sex).

Key findings from the research

  • 99 % of all children have witnessed or have been victims of violence in their home, school and /or community with 36 % reporting that they had been victims of all categories of violence studied.
  • 66 % of school-going age children reported to have been exposed to community violence such as hearing gunshots or seeing someone attacked, with the number going up in adolescence and young adulthood years.
  • More than 50 % of all children reported being exposed to violence in their home with 66 % of the parents reporting that they regularly beat their 4-5 year old with stick, belts, straps and shoes.
  • More Black (African) children reported experiencing domestic and personal violence than any other population group.
  • Children from poor families reported experiencing higher levels of sexual violence and peer violence.
  • Reports of sexual violence increase across childhood, with 10% reported among primary school aged children to 30 % in adolescents and young adults.
  • More boys in the 7-17 years age-group reported higher rates of sexual abuse than girls.

Consequences of exposure to violence

Exposure to violence can lead to long-lasting physical, mental, and emotional harm, whether the child is a direct victim or a witness. Children who are exposed to violence are more likely to suffer severe effects which include:

  • extended period of stress
  • depression
  • helplessness
  • being numb to future violence exposure
  • being uncaring towards others
  • becoming violent

Why this research matters

The research highlights violence that is perpetuated daily in the lives of children across their childhood. As long as children are exposed to the high levels of violence revealed in the study, violence will increase. The children are also more likely, as adults to suffer from long- term effects of exposure to violence which include:

  • Poor mental health
  • Drug and alcohol abuse
  • Risky sexual behavior
  • Criminality
  • Neglectful and abusive parenting

The prevention of violence has to be a priority for everyone in South Africa and this study is a stepping stone to finding effective and sustainable solutions to preventing or reducing young children’s exposure to violence. Building on this study, the DST- NRF Centre of Excellence in Human Development aims to bring together leading academics and thought leaders in the area of violence and violence prevention to outline key questions that still need to be addressed to make South Africa safer.

Researchers and co-authors:

Prof Linda Ritcher (Wits), Prof Shanaaz Mathews (UCT), Dr Julianna Kagura and Dr Engelbert Nonterah

For more information on this research

Read the full journal article of the research which was published in the SA Medical Journal.

Watch videos of Prof Linda Richter sharing the research results relating to violence in children’s lives across gender and generations at the CDSA seminar held 15 May 2018 at University of Johannesburg.

Read more about the Birth to Twenty Plus (Bt20+) study


Violence in children, effects of violence in children, DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Human Development, Children in Soweto, consequences of exposure to violence