The contribution of different forms of violence exposure to internalising and externalising symptoms in young South African adolescents

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

Studies conducted in high income countries have increasingly recognised that youth who are violently victimised are often victimised across more than one life domain, a pattern of violence exposure termed poly-victimisation. Further, poly-vicimisation has been associated with a greater severity of internalising and externalising symptoms than single types of exposure. However, there is a dearth of studies on the rate and impact of poly-victimisation among youth in South Africa. The current study assessed the rate of exposure of younger adolescents (N = 616; mean age 12.8 years) in a high-violence, low-income community in Cape Town to domestic, community, school and sexual violence either as victims or witnesses. It further explored the independent and relative contributions of each different type of violence exposure, and of polyvictimisation, to the severity of depression, aggression and conduct problems. Participants in Grade 7 at nine schools completed questionnaires measuring demographic variables, violence exposure, and symptoms of depression, aggression and conduct problems. Almost all of the participants (98.9%) had witnessed violence in their neighbourhood, 40.1% were victims of violence in their neighbourhood, 58.6% had been victims of violence in their homes, 76% had witnessed interpersonal violence in their homes, 75% had been exposed to school violence, and 8% reported experiences of sexual abuse. The median number of violence types participants were exposed to was four, with poly-victimisation being extremely prevalent: 93.1% of the sample were exposed to more than one type of violence, with 75% having been exposed to more than three different types. In a multivariate analysis, female gender, being a victim of domestic violence and poly-victimisation each made a significant independent contribution to levels of depression; being a victim of domestic violence, witnessing community violence, being a victim or witness of school violence and being sexually violated each made a significant independent contribution to levels of aggression; and being both a victim and witness of violence in the home and in the neighbourhood, together with male gender, each made a significant independent contribution to conduct problems. Poly-victimisation did not contribute significantly to levels of aggression or conduct problems. Being a victim of violence at home conferred the most risk for depression, aggression and conduct problems. The findings indicate that for the young adolescents in this study, violence exposure can be viewed as a condition as opposed to a discrete event, and that in this context of high rates of poly-victimisation, domestic victimisation stands out as the strongest risk factor for both internalising and externalising symptoms. Intervention implications and recommendations for future research are discussed.

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