Why Family Strengthening Should be on the GBVF Agenda

As we approach “16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children” starting on 25th November, we propose that addressing gender-based violence and femicide (also known as “GBVF”) has to be made a priority in South Africa. Statistics help us understand the seriousness of this challenge, with GBVF being recognized as a pandemic. South Africa grapples with a complex violent past, and serious socio-economic challenges that continue to impact the life experiences of its people. 

We also know that a person who decides to use violence against another, a person who takes someone else’s life, a person who preys on the most vulnerable does not come out of a vacuum, but rather, is part of the fabric of society that we have produced. We know this because as Arise, we sometimes interact with these perpetrators. For example, a few years ago, we worked with a well known community member, a father who was seemingly well respected man in our network, but was revealed that he had been abusive toward his wife and children. By the time we got involved his youngest child had to be removedfrom the family for his own safety. When talking to this boy and his family, he told the story of how he never had parents in his life and had been raised by the gangs in the community.

There is no excuse for this father’s behaviour. Yet one can understand that if someone is not taught what healthy connection is (which includes how to handle your anger), and when violence is a part of your everyday life or you don’t learn how to seek help when you need it… then violence is often the result. Within the relational structures of his world: a patriarchal society, a deep sense of personal shame, and being turned away from social support, what would we expect to develop? To say nothing for welfare systems that are broken and parts of systems that are corrupted…. His story is only one in a relentless ripple effect where everything is interconnected.  

This is precisely why Arise believes that we need to focus on family strengthening as a proactive, preventative measure and secondary intervention to address family violence within the home and in the community. 

The Need for Family Strengthening

Many parents whose children become involved with the child protection system have their own histories of trauma. This may include physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse, psychological harm and exposure to violence and/or neglect. Research and clinical literature on trauma globally has clearly demonstrated how the severe impact of trauma for a child’s development and the persistence of these symptoms throughout the lifetime. This is what we are facing in our country.

We know that many of our families in South Africa have multiple, complex challenges. Our families are dealing with poverty, violence, substance abuse, unemployment and so much more. These are things that most South Africans understand, but do we comprehend the depth of how these factors seep into the very fibre of the next generation that is being brought up? 

Many people who grow up in these environments face depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses. When mental illness, family violence and substance abuse (alcohol or other drugs) impact individuals, their capacity to parent is heavily impacted, especially when these factors merge. When all three factors are present, the risk to children’s safety and their ongoing development can often be severe, and there is increased risk of the child being harmed.  

Parents affected by these challenges, historically or currently, are likely to have difficulty understanding and/or responding appropriately to their children’s needs. Parents may struggle to be emotionally present and connected to their children.  They may be agitated or physically remove themselves, leaving children to navigate a challenging world both inside and outside of the home.  Ineffective, harsh and punitive discipline practices that damage the sense of belonging and connection between parent and child often lead to further disruptions in the parent-child relationship. Children who are exposed to parental substance abuse themselves show higher rates of anxiety and depression, attention issues and substance abuse.  These children are also more likely to suffer from neglect and abuse – leading to an ongoing, generational cycle. As adults, these children end up repeating this cycle with their own children – leading to an ongoing, generational cycle of violence and trauma.

Creating Healthy Attachment Bonds

Research globally continues to reaffirm the importance of felt safety from infancy for human beings. Felt safety underpins the development of the bond between an infant/child and parent/ caregiver. One of the keys of optimal development is that of the attachment bond – it is here that humans learn how to respond in an empathic, regulated and attuned way.  When this is disrupted due to the challenges within the parental or caregiver system, the way in which a child’s brain develops is impacted-  not just with regards to their social relationships, but also in terms of their ability to plan, learn and problem solve in a healthy proactive way. 

Arise  believes that we need to keep families together as best as we can because we know severing familial bonds and connections creates more trauma and in fact, our welfare system cannot cope with more children entering our system. 

We also know through the work we do in adoption support that this is not the solution either. 

We believe in a whole-family approach. We cannot work only with a child or only with the parent but with the entire system. 

A whole-family approach is a useful way of working with families experiencing the most significant and complex challenges in their lives. This approach consists of assessing and addressing the needs of the children, adults and the family and ensuring that support provided to them is coordinated and focused on concerns affecting the whole family. 

Arise believes that we need to be connecting families to services already available within their community. Especially as our child welfare system is already unable to cope with the increased number of children needing care. With over 100 000 NGOs in this country we need to be working collaboratively in order to best support the families in need. We need to work together and build the strengthes of the families we serve.

Focusing on the strengths that all families possess – even those with complex challenges, starts to change the narrative and sense of choice for members of those families. It is easy to only focus on the problems and allow the problems to define the families- a challenge to problem solving and deepening belonging and relationship. Focusing on the challenge only without acknowledging the family strengths removes a sense of ownership within the whole family unit, as well as allows the challenge to dictate the limits of problem solving.  Therefore, we advocate for a strength-based approach which empowers the family to know who they are and what they are already doing well as well as giving them hope and purpose in the problem-solving process. 

As we seek to fight and address GBVF, we need to seek solutions that address the whole family:  What protective factors exist and can be developed within families? How can we reduce the impact of trauma and strengthen the bond between caregiver and child?  How do we give families the tools and language they need to foster healthy attachment bonds?  In doing so we can create a generation of children who have secure self-worth, an ability to trust and develop healthy relationships with others as well as develop resilience. 

If you believe in the work of family preservation and strengthening, why don’t you partner with Arise so that we can see all families thrive throughout our country? When you strengthen families, you strengthen communities.