School violence needs ‘whole community’ interventions

06 June 2022 | Story Helen Swingler. Photo Getty Images. Voice Cwenga Koyana. Read time 9 min.
The release of an evidence review summary on preventing violence against children in schools has highlighted the urgency of developing multicomponent strategies
The release of an evidence review summary on preventing violence against children in schools has highlighted the urgency of developing multicomponent strategies

Estimates show that annually more than a billion children experience some form of violence and a significant proportion of that happens at schools in the Global South, according to a report co-authored by Professor Shanaaz Mathews, the director of the Children’s Institute (CI) at the University of Cape Town (UCT). Whole community interventions are essential to sustainable prevention strategies, she said.

Professor Mathews was speaking at a recent webinar to discuss the release of an evidence review, “Prevention of violence against children in and through schools in the Global South”. Mathews’ co-author is Pranita Achyut of the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), an NPO based in Washington DC, with regional offices in New Delhi, Nairobi and Kampala.

The first in a series of three, the webinar was hosted by the Sub-Saharan African Regional Hub of the Global Coalition for Good Schools, in collaboration with the CI and Raising Voices, Uganda.


“Children’s exposure to violence isn’t once off. It’s often through multiple exposures in multiple settings.”

With the focus on National Child Protection Week, which took place from 29 May to 5 June, it is important to recognise that schools reach large numbers of children daily with great potential to deliver large-scale interventions with sustained effects to prevent violence against children, said Mathews. Violence against children is a complex problem that occur in the home, community, online, in schools, and takes many forms – from corporal punishment to bullying – and includes gender-based violence.

“Violence against children is a serious public health problem with long lasting intergenerational consequences,” Mathews said. Implementing evidence-based sustainable interventions is critical. “Children’s exposure to violence isn’t once off. It’s often through multiple exposures in multiple settings. And when we think about developing interventions, you’ve got to consider how you target those risks and enhance protective factors for children.”

‘Mountain of information’

The report is based on a systematic scoping review that explored the nature of successful violence prevention interventions delivered through schools in the Global South. The scoping team faced a “mountain of information,” said co-moderator Dipak Naker of Raising Voices, Uganda, and a mammoth task, said Mathews, but was only possible through a dedicated research team at UCT.

The scoping review method yielded 84 708 unique records resulting in 802 papers for review. From these, 89 peer-reviewed and published articles were included in the study. Further outreach through networks and online searches yielded 62 relevant programme reports (grey literature). Finally, the reviewers examined 151 publications and identified lessons from 93 distinct programme interventions in the Global South.

The review identified six key characteristics of successful interventions:

  • Multicomponent focusing on engaging multiple stakeholders in the programme with an investment in structural changes increase sustainability.
  • Addressing values, policies and practice targeting the whole school environment more effective in reducing violence.
  • Group-based interventions can help develop shared values and successfully shift gender roles in young people.
  • Teachers can be trained and empowered to improve learner behaviour.
  • Targeted interventions are needed to address specific forms of violence; in other words, intimate partner violence with older adolescents.
  • The development of successful interventions is an iterative and learning process.

The INSPIRE framework for the prevention of violence against children developed by the World Health Organization (WHO) and launched alongside the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children in 2016, draws on seven evidence-based strategies for countries and communities working to eliminate violence against children. This review adapted the framework in its analysis of interventions addressing violence against children prevention in and through schools. Through this analysis, the study classified 20 intervention programmes as successful, 29 as promising, 30 as emerging and 14 as ineffective.

Map for the Global South

Th need for an intervention map for the Global South had become pressing, said webinar moderator John Kalage, the executive director of HakiElimu in Tanzania. Much of the work to address the problem in the Global South remained undocumented. And most peer-reviewed research published emanate from the Global North.


“We needed to map what was happening on the issue in the Global South, who was leading it and what was working.”

“The group met for the first time in 2019 to understand why this was the case,” said Kalage. “We realised we needed to do two things. First, we needed to map what was happening on the issue in the Global South, who was leading it and what was working. Second, it was important to develop a platform for sharing our creative community of practice of establishing an infrastructure to engage more and debate more fully between peers and on the global stage.” This was the foundations for the establishment of the Coalition for the Good School, a southern-led initiative to promote and highlight the development of intervention in the Global South.

Multicomponent strategies are essential to sustainable solutions, said Mathews.

“Violence is such a complex area. When I talk about multicomponent interventions, I mean strategies that addresses the whole system: the child, the parents, the school, the community. You have to think of it as an ecosystem. And strategies must therefore address the child at individual level, and how they’re embedded within the community as well as the school.

Policies are not enough

Interventions must also tackle structural changes that encourage the development of a favourable school climate that encourages learner participation in developing school safety plans through inclusive development of policies and governance structures. Corporal punishment, for example, is still widespread in African schools in the Global South. Here policies and practices and school values are prime targets for intervention purposes, but teacher support is also vital.

“How do you support teachers to use non-violent forms of discipline within the school? In South Africa, for example, we’ve had corporal punishment legislation for more than 20 years, Yet surveys show that 50% of children in schools will experience it. Policies on their own are not going to make a difference. It’s about how you change the culture and behaviour – and that’s the challenge that we all face.”


“You’re not just targeting learners but teachers, governing bodies, as well as parents and communities.”

Here ‘whole school’ approaches work best, said Mathews.

“You’re not just targeting learners but teachers, governing bodies, as well as parents and communities.” Involving parents is key to sustainable solutions, she said. “As children are exposed to programmes, you’ve got to take your parents [with on] the journey as far as possible, [or] else you’re not going to have the sustained effect of your programme. And I think that this is one of the most valuable lessons that we’ve learned from the review.”

Group-based education can also impact behaviour and empower learners, creating resilience among learners, and building peer support, said Achyut. But safe spaces are critical, even in group settings.

“It’s crucial that the group setting is a safe space where students can express themselves and ask questions without fear of being judged.”

It’s also essential to equip teachers to move away from current teaching practices of teaching which are often “patriarchal and power-ridden”, said Achyut.

However, creating safe schools is part of a larger societal challenge, she said. Citing South Africa as an example, Mathews said that this needed to extend to communities as part of the solution.

“Our communities have gang violence and just stepping out of school is not always safe. We’ve got to be thinking about how we create an intervention that interfaces with all the risks that the child could be exposed to in their life … Interventions must include multiple stakeholders, such as community [and] religious leaders. The more comprehensive the approach, the better the outcomes.”  

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