From fear to resilience: adolescents’ experiences of violence in inner-city Johannesburg, South Africa

Fiona Scorgie, Deborah Baron, Jonathan Stadler, Emilie Venables, Heena Brahmbhatt, Kristin Mmari and Sinead Delany-Moretlwe BMC Public Health, 2017; From fear to resilience: adolescents’ experiences of violence in inner-city Johannesburg, South Africa

For adolescents growing up in poor urban South African settings, violence is often a part of daily life and has lasting effects on physical and mental health outcomes in adulthood.

This paper presents findings from a qualitative study to document and understand the forms of interpersonal violence experienced by adolescents living in Hillbrow, Johannesburg. It explores:

  • how violence is experienced differently by adolescent boys and girls
  • how they conceptualise ‘dangerous’ and ‘safe’ spaces in their neighbourhood
  • what gaps exist in available services for youth in Hillbrow.

The article draws on data collected from the Johannesburg site in the formative phase of the ‘Wellbeing of Adolescents in Vulnerable Environments’ (WAVE) Study of challenges faced by adolescents (15–19 years) growing up in impoverished parts of five cities. 

The findings reveal that both girls and boys reported high exposure to witnessing violence and crime. For girls, the threat of sexual harassment and violence was pervasive, while boys feared local gangs, the threat of physical violence, and being drawn into substance-abuse. Home was largely a safe haven for boys, whereas for girls it was often a space of sexual violence, abuse and neglect. Some adolescents developed coping mechanisms, such as actively seeking out community theatres, churches and other places of sanctuary from violence. Community-based services and shelters that support adolescents reported a lack of resources, overall instability and difficulties networking effectively.

Adolescents in Hillbrow commonly witnessed and had direct experience of many forms of violence in their environment, and these experiences differed markedly by gender. Interventions that build young peoples’ social capital and resilience are essential for reducing violence-related trauma and long-term health and social consequences for adolescents in this community.

For interventions to succeed, strong commitment from local and national stakeholders are needed, along with positive adult role models and regenerated public institutions, fully accountable to the communities they serve.

This paper is part of the BMC Public Health supplement Urban Health at the Edge: A Series on Reproductive Health and HIV in Inner-City Johannesburg. Read the introduction and find links to other STRIVE papers in the series here.


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