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Study: Violence affecting children’s health

By GATONYE GATHURA | Published Mon, March 31st 2014 at 00:00, Updated March 30th 2014 at 23:32 GMT +3
Professor Ndetei
                              Professor Ndetei                PHOTO: COURTESY


Kenya: Medical experts are warning that frequent terror attacks, armed robberies, car accidents and domestic conflicts are a major health concern, particularly in the growth of children.

 “The violence the children are experiencing is having a profound effect on their mental development,” said leading psychiatrist David Ndetei (pictured) of the University of Nairobi.

Prof Ndetei said Kenya, with only 99 trained psychiatrists and only 25 in public hospitals, may find it difficult to cope with the high number of people and especially children exposed to high doses of violence.

A recent international survey involving Kenya and the drug and mafia neighbourhoods of Colombia and Italy showed children raised in violent circumstances become very aggressive.

 “We were able to replicate this across the globe in a wide range of cultures, that where parents reported they lived in a dangerous neighbourhood, we also saw increased levels of child aggression,” said study leader Ann Skinner of Duke University, US.

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The researchers sought to establish whether aggressive behaviour exhibited by children and adolescents living in dangerous US neighbourhoods were reflected in other countries.

Health complications

 “We found this to be so in the study countries, which included Kenya, China, Colombia, Italy, Jordan, the Philippines, Sweden, Thailand and the United States,” said Dr Skinner.

Prof Ndetei said children are being affected long before they are born.

“We carried out a study of pregnant women who were in the vicinity of the 1998 American Embassy bomb attack in Nairobi and found their unborn children to have had more health complications as compared to others,” Prof Ndetei told The Standard in an interview.

Prof Ndetei, who is the founder of the Africa Mental Health Foundation, said they observed the women and their children for three years and recorded more psychological and physical health problems in these children compared to others in the general public.

According to an ongoing study by Prof Ndetei, 43 per cent of pregnant women in the rural areas and 36 per cent in the urban areas are physically abused by their partners, raising fears that they will give birth to disturbed children.

“Violence against a pregnant woman has now been known to affect the hormonal balance between the mother and the unborn child especially in the first trimester, raising the likelihood of a difficulty-ridden and unhealthy child,” said Prof Ndetei.

Such children are also likely to be born with little capacity to fight other diseases even in adulthood because of the underdeveloped immunity systems.

Dr Skinner, who published her study in the Societies journal in February, also found child aggression to be strongly linked to high utilisation of medical resources and overall poor health in adulthood.

Child aggression

Dr Skinner’s study, which covered 1,293 families in the nine countries, showed Italian and Kenyan children to have the highest levels of child aggression.

Kenyan parents were also found to be the harshest among the participating countries.

The relocating of adults-only activities from urban bars, discos, sex and drug dens to residential areas has also been blamed for the increasing aggression among young people.

In estates such as Embakasi, where discos, bars, sex and drug dens are housed within residential houses, children are exposed to strong language and violence for long periods.

“I had always wished the first word from my baby girl would be ‘mum’ but unfortunately it was ‘DJ Terror’ who performs at the upstairs bar and disco,” said Jane who lives near a strip joint in Tassia.

“This is one of the reasons we want to remove all bars that are near schools to reduce the incidence of children witnessing and copying some bad adult behaviour,” said Nacada chairman John Mututho.

Harsh parenting, which involves strong verbal admonishments and corporal punishment, does not seem to curb aggression in children.