UCT initiative supports multi-disciplinary approach to gender violence

25 February 2013
Guy Lamb, recently appointed director of UCT's Safety and Violence Initiative (SaVI).
Guy Lamb, recently appointed director of UCT's Safety and Violence Initiative (SaVI).

Monday Paper's first interview with Guy Lamb, recently appointed director of UCT's Safety and Violence Initiative (SaVI), is against the national backdrop of running media reports of rape, murder and violent crimes against women -and at UCT, against the backdrop of a protest march that rallied the community in their thousands.

MP: You were appointed director late last year. What was it about SaVI's vision and your own background that attracted you?
GL: For many years I have been passionate about engaged scholarship, particularly how research findings and theory can be converted in practical knowledge and interventions that have the potential make a positive difference in people's lives. Prior to joining SaVI I worked with governments in a number of African countries to improve firearm controls. However, such a narrow single-discipline focus had its limitations. SaVI has a clear social responsiveness objective and has a multi-disciplinary approach with a view to undertaking trans-disciplinary work on violence reduction and safety promotion. SaVI is a forum that brings together academics and students on these issues, and currently includes some world-class scholars.

MP: In a nutshell, what are the main causes of gender violence and inequality in South Africa, and why are the levels so high? Are we alone in this?
GL: There is no concise answer to this question. There are a number of eminent scholars at UCT and other universities and research institutes that have been undertaking cutting-edge research on the sources and triggers of violence in South Africa for decades. Last year, 12 SaVI affiliated scholars (Catherine Ward, Lillian Artz, Julie Berg, Floretta Boonzaier, Sarah Crawford-Browne, Andrew Dawes, Donald Foster, Richard Matzopoulos, Andrew Nicol, Jeremy Seekings, Sebastian van As and Elrena van der Spuy) jointly published an article in the South African Medical Journal on violence in South Africa. It indicated that there are substantial knowledge gaps and that extensive research was required. It did however suggest that certain early childhood development factors (such as maltreatment, and unsupportive parenting) had contributed to aggressive and violent behaviour. In addition, it was argued that certain societal factors may contribute to violence, such as maltreatment in schools; the prevalence of aggressive behaviour in peer groups (such as gangs) and neighbourhoods; heavy-handed policing; alcohol and drug abuse; social norms that legitimise violence; and high income inequality and unemployment. South Africa is not entirely exceptional in terms of violence. It is in the top ten when it comes to homicide rates, but the homicide rates in some countries in the Caribbean (eg Jamaica), Central and South America (such as El Salvador, Honduras and Venezuela) are between 40% and 300% higher than South Africa. However, there is evidence to suggest that South Africa may have one of the highest rates of rape.

MP: You've described SaVI as a melting pot of research and work on violence and safety. How much is being done across the university?
GL: UCT has a long tradition of undertaking research on violence, crime and safety, with the key faculties having been health sciences, humanities and law. These days most faculties are undertaking violence-related research. There are currently four modest SaVI research projects under way: trauma and substance abuse (led by Katherine Sorsdahl, Department of Psychiatry); violence and alcohol use (led by Jeremy Seekings, Centre for Social Science Research); violence and substance abuse (led by Andrew Nicol, Department of Surgery); and violence interruption through social work (led by Lillian Artz, Gender, Health and Justice Research Unit).

MP: Is UCT leading the way?
GL: Other South African universities do not have such multi-disciplinary initiatives on safety and violence. However, some universities outside of South Africa do have well developed violence-focused units/centres. We have been in contact with Griffith University, Australia, and University College London, and we may call on both (and other relevant organisations) for strategic advice in the future.

MP: UCT is often described as an ivory tower; we're 'up on the hill', removed from society. How will SaVI's work be felt at a community level, on the ground?
GL: A number of UCT academics that are associated with SaVI have been working in communities affected by violence for decades. SaVI will seek to learn from these experiences and contribute towards further consolidating these relationships. SaVI is also looking to partner with other UCT community-oriented initiatives -for example we are in discussions with SHAWCO on how we can work together. Some of the SaVI Steering Committee members have been providing inputs to the Khayelitsha commission of inquiry into policing, and making research and strategic contributions to the civil society campaign where appropriate. Recently I was approached by the Chrysalis Academy for assistance, and I am currently in discussion with them as to how SaVI may provide support.

MP: You've talked of establishing a 'violence observatory' within SaVI. It's an interesting descriptor. What will this do and what shape will it take?
GL: The idea of the 'violence observatory' was instigated by the SaVI Steering Committee back in 2011, and will be finalised and launched later this year. It is likely to consist of multiple components, with the major focus being a community-centred programme. That is, SaVI will focus on and work in partnership with an interested community (or communities) in Cape Town that is affected by violence. In-depth research on various aspects of violence and safety promotion will be undertaken in that community with a view to supporting, developing and implementing violence reduction/prevention processes and projects.

MP: Violence seems like a perennially incoming tide. Can we make a difference as a university and community?
GL: Indeed. UCT academics and students can contribute to filling the knowledge gaps on violence, and try and provide some answers to the complex questions about this phenomenon. This knowledge has the potential to shift policy and legislation when required. Also, where there is interest or requests from civil society organisations and communities affected by violence, such knowledge can be used to shape and implement violence prevention strategies and programmes. Universities are the training grounds for many future leaders in government, the private sector and NGOs. A comprehensive programme on understanding and responding violence can influence strategic thinking in the future.

MP: What is the key to turning the tide? Are there any success stories out there?
GL: There is no panacea for reducing and preventing violence, but there are a host of tried and tested tools. Examples include legislation and policy; health programmes that focus on substance misuse, as well as promoting maternal health and improved parenting; and school-based violence prevention programmes. The challenge is that violence reduction and prevention measures that are developed in one context may not be effective in other contexts. Take the Cure Violence model for example, which was developed and tested in the US cities of Chicago and Baltimore. It involves 'interrupting' violence, and has reportedly resulted in a reduction of between 16% and 34% in shootings and killings in the targeted communities in those cities. However, its applicability to other contexts is yet to be property tested. The rule of thumb is that violence prevention programmes should draw on solid research and best practice, but be home-grown and take local environmental and cultural factors into account.

MP: Is there a role for students and PASS staff in this initiative, directly or indirectly?
GL: Certainly. We will be looking to have an open consultation of the work and focus of SaVI in the near future. We will be looking to draw students into SaVI research projects. We also have plans to establish a postgraduate programme and even some short courses over the next few years. There will also be opportunities for interested students and PASS staff to get involved in outreach work and collaborations with NGOs in the sector. As I have already mentioned, SaVI is in the process of developing a partnership with SHAWCO.

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