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Uncovering drivers of violence against children in Swaziland

Violent discipline affects 9 in 10 children; 1 in 3 experience some form of sexual abuse
03 Aug 2017
Swaziland children

(3 August 2017) A comprehensive qualitative study exploring the drivers of violence affecting children in Swaziland aims to shed light on why violence against children is happening and to make recommendations on what can be done to prevent it. The National Study on the Drivers of Violence against Children in Swaziland report, launched 18 May 2017, identifies key drivers linked to increased risk of violence against children1 – including gender inequality and entrenched social norms preventing disclosure of family ‘secrets’ – and lays out policy recommendations focusing on improving legal frameworks and creating safe protective settings for children.

The study follows the Research to Policy and Practice Process (R3P) methodology developed by UNICEF Innocenti’s ongoing Multi-Country Study on the Drivers of Violence Affecting Children, and improves upon it with the collection of new qualitative data on contributing factors of violence affecting children.  The study was carried out by the University of Edinburgh, in partnership with The University of Swaziland, UNICEF Swaziland and with support from the Swaziland Deputy Prime Minister’s Office. The report is a follow-up to the ground-breaking 2007 quantitative national study on violence against children in Swaziland.

According to national survey data, violent discipline in the home, which includes physical punishment and psychological aggression, affects more than 88 per cent of all children in Swaziland. The study findings also reveal that sexual violence and bullying affects 38 per cent and 32 percent of children in Swaziland, respectively. The study found that children experiencing one type of violence were more likely to experience other types of violence. One staggering statistic to emerge from the data revealed that for every girl child known to Social Welfare as having experienced sexual violence, there are an estimated 400 girls who have never received help or assistance for sexual violence.

The research study assessed different levels of risk at the individual, interpersonal, and community levels. Individually, risk factors varied little across settings. Age and gender were linked to increased vulnerabilities in girls because of biological changes. Orphans and children with disabilities were found to be more vulnerable to all types of violence. Food insecurity and living with three or more other families during childhood years was found to be associated with increased risk for violence in girls as well.

Key risk factors for violence affecting children at the interpersonal level include the presence of domestic violence in the home, the quality of relationships between parents and children, financial stress and family structure, as well as the Swazi family and community normative concept of ‘tibi tendlu’, which translates to ‘family secrets.’ The widely accepted notion of keeping family matters private to protect the family or community over the individual was repeatedly cited as a driver of violence and was also found to be a factor dissuading individuals from intervening when they suspect a child is abused. Lack of reporting violence affecting children was also found to be related to a general lack of confidentiality in communities, where some have even faced retaliation after reporting childhood violence.

Swaziland is one of the first countries to link drivers of violence to strategies that are highly likely to be effective at preventing violence. The government has established a Multi-Sectoral Task Team (MTTV) to follow up on recommendations and to work with key stakeholders on prevention.

The study identifies five key factors that drive violence across all levels of society:

  1. Gender norms and inequality,
  2. Economic and social policies that increase poverty and inequality,
  3. The HIV/AIDS epidemic,
  4. Formal and informal systems that inhibit disclosure, access and follow-up on violence experiences and,
  5. Family and community norms around ‘Tibi Tendlu’ or secrets.

According to the report, these five drivers had the greatest impact on children’s individual vulnerability, on the quality of relationships in the home, school and community, on the capacity of adults to care for children and on community and institutional responses to violence. Based on findings from the study, key policy recommendations were made corresponding to the seven priority strategies found in WHO’s INSPIRE framework

Under implementation and enforcement of laws emphasis is placed on aligning national education and child protection Acts and banning corporal punishment in all settings. Under norms and values recommendations focus on fostering national dialogue on violence, addressing harmful gender norms and scaling up positive discipline programmes in schools. Within safe environments efforts should directed toward increasing the number of guidance counselors in schools and strengthening community based child protection structures. In the parenting and caregiver support strategy area emphasis is placed on improving parenting and family strengthening skills and awareness of caring for orphans. Under income and economic strengthening recommendations focus on building entrepreneurial skills, scaling up cash transfers and vocational training. In the response and social services strategy area effort should be directed at strengthening case-management, reporting and referral mechanisms and building up child helplines and one-stop service centres. Finally, in education and life skills recommendations call for wider provision of life skills and increasing capacity of teachers for preventing violence. 

[For a full summary of the recommendations from the study, click here.]

Dr. Deborah Fry, a programme director and senior lecturer on child protection at the University of Edinburgh coordinated the study in Swaziland, in consultation with UNICEF Innocenti.  As principal investigator of the study, Fry believes the findings of the report will help persuade policy makers to move forward in efforts to lower risks of violence in Swaziland. “It’s hard to know where to act and what to prioritize to help prevent violence in the first place, so this model is good at identifying which issues are actual drivers of violence,” she said. “Identifying the root causes helps to develop better programs and policies.”

Now that the drivers of violence have been established, Fry is confident about Swaziland’s commitment to do something about it. “What’s special about Swaziland is the huge commitment from all different government ministries, which has been a driver for the success of the study and is very promising for future efforts to be made going forward.”

Of the key recommendations made from the study, Fry identified implementation and enforcement of laws as especially important. “I hope that this study will be the tipping point to finally passing the Sexual Offences and Domestic Violence Act, which includes the extension of the definition of rape to male victims as well as updating and consolidating the law on sexual offences,” she said. “There is a national violence law, but is hasn’t been enforced. We also hope this evidence will help government commit to using the study findings to help form a national strategy for violence prevention. 


1. Drivers refer to factors at the institutional and structural levels that create the conditions in which violence is more or less likely to occur. Risk and protective factors reflect the likelihood of violence occurring due to characteristics most often measured at the individual, interpersonal, and community levels.. In Swaziland, key drivers include gender inequality and entrenched social norms interacting with risk and preventive factors at the community level and within households. Identifying these factors helps Swaziland move to targeted evidence-based recommendations for continually improving legal frameworks and creating safe protective settings for children.