Tough childhoods produce violent men, study warns as teen killer is jailed
Early trauma throws up red flags for physical, mental, sexual and behavioural problems in poor countries
Sinethemba Nzima was only 16 when he killed for the first time.
His victim, 18-year-old Sinoxolo Mlunguza, was stabbed to death in Thembalethu, in the Garden Route town of George, early on October 8 2017.
Within a day, Nzima was in custody, and this month he was jailed for 10 years. But he will be back in court to be tried for another murder, allegedly committed in March 2019.
Captain Dumile Gwavu, of the Thembalethu police station, said Nzima was one of numerous adolescent boys in the township who fought each other every day.
“The students want to steal items of clothing like pants and jerseys. They want to undermine one another,” Gwavu told Times Select.
Often, the boys got carried away and someone died, he said. They typically came from low-income homes, many parented by single mothers, and may have been exposed to childhood trauma.
Behaviour of the type Gwavu described is typical among adolescents in low-income countries, according to new international research published by the Global Early Adolescent Study.
Lead researcher Robert Blum, from the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in the US, said: “Having a greater number of adverse childhood experiences has been associated with an increased risk of many physical, mental, sexual and behavioural health problems.”
Blum’s researchers questioned 1,284 adolescents aged 10-14 years in Cape Town and 13 other locations, including China, India and Kenya.
They asked about the children’s experiences of physical neglect, sexual abuse and violent victimisation, and discovered that “boys report greater exposure than girls” to all forms of adversity.
Depressive symptoms grew in line with adverse experiences, Blum said in the Journal of Adolescent Health, and these made children significantly more likely to be aggressive.
“The effect of the adversity was more pronounced for boys than girls, with boys 11 times more likely to be engaged in violence,” said Blum.
His findings, in a project supported by the World Health Organisation, are supported by a global coalition of adolescent health experts who will present their findings at a conference in Canada next week.
The Bellagio Working Group on Gender Equality, comprising 22 experts from 15 countries, says the world will never achieve gender equality by focusing only on girls and women.
Boys “experience as much disadvantage as girls”, the working group will tell the Women Deliver gathering in Vancouver, adding: “They are more likely to smoke, drink and suffer unintentional and intentional injury and death in the second decade of life than their female counterparts.”
Childhood abuse and harmful gender stereotypes must be addressed by the age of 10, according to the Bellagio group, as trauma, gender norms and attitudes solidified during adolescence.
“We must actively engage girls and boys at the onset of adolescence to increase total social inclusion and produce generational change,” the group said.
In Thembalethu, Gwavu said violence among groups of boys had been going on for many years. “There is no reason for them to fight. The police and other stakeholders have tried numerous times to find out the cause [of the violence] but could not find any,” he said.
He urged boys to take responsibility for their own lives and not succumb to peer pressure.
“They must not do things in groups but learn that one must do things in the right way as individuals. Do not be found on the wrong side of the law,” he said.