OPINION: Preventing violence is a priority – and it's possible

Far too much money and effort are invested in responding to violence after it occurs, and managing its tragic consequences in a deeply damaged society. Prevention is a much better strategy, write Chandre Gould and Nwabisa Shai.

This week the Sexual Violence Research Initiative (SVRI) and the City of Cape Town are hosting more than 700 researchers, activists and policy makers from around the world to the latest knowledge about how to prevent violence against women and children.

The good news is that violence is preventable.

We now know more than ever about the impact of trauma and violence on women and children, and how to prevent it. We urgently need to make this knowledge work for us in South Africa.

As Kgaugelo Moshia-Molebatsi from the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation told the SVRI conference, "violence against women and children in our country is an emergency".

Far too much money and effort are invested in responding to violence after it occurs, and managing its tragic consequences in a deeply damaged society. Prevention is a much better strategy.

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The Violence Prevention Forum (VPF) is working hard to use the knowledge generated in South Africa and internationally to prevent violence.

The forum is a collective of committed people from government, community-based organisations, research institutions and international organisations who believe we can and must expand violence-prevention interventions that work. We include senior people from national treasury, the departments of health, basic education, social development and the police.

End the epidemic

South Africa faces an epidemic of violence which stands in the way of us developing as a nation. Violence eats away at the fabric of society, rendering people fearful, unhappy and unproductive.

Most children in South Africa are trapped in intergenerational cycles of poverty. Families are oppressed by inequality, and kept there by violence.

In 2015 the loss in human capital due to experiences of violence during childhood was estimated by UNICEF to be around R238bn.

That is almost double the annual budget spent on the criminal justice system (R86.7bn for SAPS and R44bn for courts and prisons in 2017/2018 budget). But we cannot police our way out of violence.

We need to start funding more violence prevention programmes.

Toxic stress

The abnormally high levels of toxic stress experienced by South African children is the cumulative consequence of exposure to chronic poverty, systemic inequality, endemic violence and widespread unemployment.

We know that early childhood experiences impact on brain development and social skills. When children are neglected, don't have enough to eat, and are exposed to violence, they are more likely to be mentally and physically unwell as adults, to turn to drugs and alcohol to escape their anguish, and to use violence themselves, thus perpetuating intergenerational cycles of violence.

What wasn't working?

Nearly five years ago, the Institute for Security Studies and UNICEF asked why we were still so far from successful large-scale violence-prevention programmes, despite years of research and investment.

We wanted to know why there was a graveyard full of pilot projects, money wasted when it could have prevented girls from being raped, children from being abused, and women from being beaten.

We concluded that researchers didn't understand the issues faced by government policy makers. Policy makers don't always understand what NGOs need. And both policy makers and NGOs very often feel pressured by the interests and demands of donors.

People on the frontline of service delivery don't know what it's like to be a policy maker or researcher. Government is not always aware of the difficult circumstances faced by frontline activists and care workers.

What this suggests is that we weren't working together to tackle one of the biggest challenges facing this country.

There were very few opportunities for us to talk, plan, and share together – in a place not dominated by hierarchies of power and knowledge, not influenced by money, and where we could dedicate time to understanding each other.

So the VPF became a place where we listen and respond to each other, share experiences and collaborate in the real sense of the word. We meet as equals in a deeply democratic environment to explore and build relationships between civil society and government, between academics and activists, and between donors and development partners.

We are finding a common language for our challenges, and grappling with what we know, and what we still need to know, to address the challenge of violence in this country. 

We speak with respect and empathy in an environment without egos, characterised by a commitment to deep democracy. We are beginning to model the relationships we would like to enable throughout society.

Government participants in the VPF now have a better understanding of the challenges faced by grassroots organisations. Our academic participants have shared the results of research from SA and internationally, showing us the way to effective evidence-based violence prevention.

We are starting to understand how government allocates resources, and how we can help government to spend more wisely on programmes that protect women and children.

An economist from national treasury is now an advocate of violence prevention inside government, and in 2018 the Department of Social Development's budget, for the first time, had a line item for preventing violence.

That is an important result. But, much more needs to be done.

We have identified the major challenges standing in the way of violence prevention, among them the fact that many frontline care workers are themselves traumatised by violence, poverty and oppression.

We've been steadily building up a picture of what we need to do in SA to prevent violence. We have a growing sense of optimism that it's possible, and a determination to succeed. The alternative is not an option.

- Dr Nwabisa Shai is a Specialist Scientist at South African Medical Research Council. Dr Chandre Gould is a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies. They are both members of the Violence Prevention Forum.

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