Childhood violence victims most likely to become perpetrators


African research adds to global evidence for violence cycle. Andrew Masterson reports.


The city of Lilongwe, in Malawi. Figures show that more than half of the country's young men have committed acts of violence.

Tom Cockrem/Getty Images

More than half of young males and almost a third of young females in some countries in sub-Saharan Africa commit violent acts against others, research reveals.

The results of a two-year data-gathering exercise overseen by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with the assistance of the governments of Malawi, Nigeria, Uganda, and Zambia, reveal that, overwhelmingly, people who were the victims of violence as children are most likely to perpetrate violence as adults.

And although the numbers are high – with 51.5% of Malawian men under the age of 25 admitting acts of violence – they are not unique.

In a paper published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the researchers, led by Elizabeth Swedo of the organisation’s Epidemic Intelligence Service cite research from 2011 and 2016 that collectively found high levels of violence perpetrated by men in countries as diverse as Brazil, Chile, Croatia, India, Mexico, Rwanda, and South Africa.

Swedo and colleagues note that acts of physical, sexual and emotional violence claim about 1.3 million lives each year, but population-based data describing the scope of the problem in many countries is scarce or absent.

The latest sub-Saharan figures go some way to fleshing out the knowledge base.

The information was gathered by CDC-trained locals, who conducted household surveys of people aged between 13 and 24, between 2013 and 2015.

“Perpetration of physical or sexual violence was prevalent among both males and females, ranging among males from 29.5% in Nigeria to 51.5% in Malawi and among females from 15.3% in Zambia to 28.4% in Uganda,” the researchers report.

They note that the numbers may be conservative. Young people living in non-standard accommodation – such as institutions, student dormitories or on the streets – were not included in the surveys.

Tellingly, those who admitted committing acts of violence were also highly likely to have been the victims of violence during their own childhoods.

“Strong associations between youths’ experiences of violence and subsequent perpetration of physical or sexual violence were observed in all four studied countries,” the researchers write.

In Zambia, for example, people who experienced physical, sexual or emotional violence before the age of 18 were 20 times more likely than those who did not to go on to commit violent acts.

Swedo and colleagues stress the need for country-specific strategies to end the cycle of victimisation and assault, but also see some common factors.

“The strong association between experiencing physical, sexual, or emotional violence in childhood and later perpetration of violence highlights the importance of long-term, comprehensive interventions for both victims and perpetrators,” they conclude.

“Potential strategies include improved access to therapeutic services and counselling, support and education of parents, reduction of community violence, and improving gender equity.”

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  1. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/68/wr/pdfs/mm6815a3-H.pdf
  2. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0029590
  3. https://www.icrw.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Evolving-Men-Initial-Results-from-the-International-Men-and-Gender-Equality-Survey-IMAGES-1.pdf
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