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Confronting gender-based violence at its root in childhood.

With the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign taking place from 25 November to 10 December, Alexandra Township-based NGO, Rays of Hope, believes that addressing the scourge of gender-based violence needs to start in early childhood.

 With violence against women and girls being an ever-growing epidemic in South Africa, Rays of Hope, an NGO that works with the community of Alexandra Township and victims of gender-based violence, believes that the key to stopping the scourge of gender-based violence may lie with the littlest members of our society.

 “Children bear the brunt of the effects of violence, abuse, crime, poverty and other social ills that play out around them, which can be devastating to their development in the long-term, physically, socially, emotionally and cognitively,” says Nhlanhla Mcunu, Rays of Hope counsellor. “Rays of Hope’s stance is that interventions in the form of education, psychosocial support, good nutrition and childhood safety need to take place from early on to break the cycle of violence that is perpetuated from generation to generation.”

 The significance of attachment theory in addressing gender-based violence

Educational psychologist, Yvonne Mokhudung Segabutle, points to the importance of early emotional bonds that children develop with a parent or caregiver – or ‘attachment theory’ – as a major influencer of a child’s developmental wellbeing and future success.

 

“The theory states that there are internal systems in a child’s brain that help the child identify as worthy of love and protection, linked to how they experience their attachment in relation to others.  In that mode, there is a healthy attachment cycle and what I can generally call an unhealthy attachment cycle,” says Segabutle.

 

A healthy, secure attachment occurs when a caregiver is regularly attuned, nurturing, and responsive to the needs of a child. “This allows a child to safely explore their environment and make meaning of their world through cognition and emotion,” she adds. “Secure attachment contributes to important factors like academic success, and a child becoming more adaptive to socio-emotional functioning as they grow older.”

 

Where a child is neglected, exposed to harm, and abuse – whether they are subjected to it or are witness to the abuse of a parent, loved one or others around them – the child learns to associate relationships with others with the feeling of being unsafe.

 

“Any deviation from what a child perceives as ‘safe’ and trustworthy is a recipe for maladjustments and distortions in how they perceive themselves in relation to others and their environment in general,” says Segabutle. “These distortions can even be seen in a scan of a child’s brain, where the reptilian brain, which controls our sense of self preservation, kick into overdrive and moves the child into constant survival mode.”

Where children do not develop the right amount of secure attachment with parents or caregivers in their early years, Segabutle says they are at risk of developing low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, difficulties with emotional regulation, and complicated adult relationships.

 

“For trauma survivors who have had to deal with and be exposed to gender-based violence, when it comes to dating for instance, the deepening stages of a romantic relationship can be as painful as they are blissful, or even much more painful, as the individual feels the desire for attachment, and their immediate reaction is to defend against it or reject it outright,” she says.

 

Segabutle says that a child’s well-being is determined and impacted as early as when they are in the womb, where the formation of a parent-child bond begins. “Furthermore, their relationship with a parent or caregiver from birth into later childhood is significant in shaping a child’s worldview and their perceptions about the self and others. This is when safety is sought, and trust is built.”

 

It’s for this reason that many young women who observe a parent being abused or are themselves subjected to abuse as children are likely to grow up and enter relationships with abusive partners themselves.

“Gender-based violence is a cycle that will continue unless the problem is addressed during childhood, taking a preventative approach instead of a symptomatic one and ensuring that children are able to grow, learn and develop in healthy, nurturing and consistently supportive environments,” says Mcunu.

 

Through its many community-based programmes, an ECD centre equipped to meet the cognitive, nutritional, and developmental needs of young children, and support services, such as the establishment of a gender-based violence crisis centre, Rays of Hope is committed to changing the narrative and putting an end to gender-based violence in Alex.

 

For more information and to donate to Rays of Hope and its efforts in addressing gender-based violence as well as providing support to victims in Alex, visit www.raysofhope.co.za.

 

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