Rural South African children exposed to violence are more likely to be victims, perpetrators of violence as adults

February 22, 2019

In rural South Africa, children who experience violence as a child are more likely to not only experience sexual violence and interpersonal violence (IPV) as an adult but also perpetrate IPV in their adult lives.

Sarah Treves-Kagan

Sarah Treves-Kagan

Sarah Treves-Kagan, MPH, doctoral candidate in health behavior at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, is the author of “Sexual and Physical Violence in Childhood Is Associated With Adult Intimate Partner Violence and Non-partner Sexual Violence in a Representative Sample of Rural South African Men and Women,” published online Feb. 8 in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence.

Violence against children, IPV and nonpartner sexual violence are critical health issues in South Africa — and globally. While previous studies suggest that experiencing violence in childhood puts people at risk to perpetrate or experience more violence, including sexual violence, in adulthood, most of those studies have been conducted in high-resourced countries, or in urban areas of low- and middle-income countries, or within specific populations, such as pregnant women.

Treves-Kagan and her team addressed this gap by exploring the relationship between violence in childhood and violence in adulthood with a representative sample in rural South Africa. Using data from a population-based survey, the team measured childhood violence before age 15, experience of nonpartner sexual violence in adulthood, and IPV victimization and perpetration in the last 12 months. They found that men and women who experienced childhood violence (combined physical and/or sexual) were significantly more likely to experience forced sex by a nonpartner, compared with those who did not experience childhood violence. They were also 2.5 times more likely to perpetrate and experience IPV.

“One important difference between rural and urban communities is access to support and social services,” said Treves-Kagan. “This study area is characterized by high unemployment, high rates of poverty and overburdened social support systems. All of these contextual issues influence children’s and adults’ vulnerability to violence. Our research highlights an important social and health issue to be addressed and can help inform planning in an area with limited resources.”

Treves-Kagan advocates for crafting holistic violence prevention and response programs that address multiple forms of violence. In another study, she explores the experiences of men and women in interventions that are both gender-transformative, which can reduce IPV, and include positive parenting practices, which can reduce violence in children.

“Traditionally programming to prevent and respond to different forms of violence has been conducted in silos,” she noted. “Our research findings support identifying ways to integrate intimate partner violence, sexual assault and childhood violence prevention and response strategies.”


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Contact the Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomm@listserv.unc.edu.

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