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A Review of Literature Examining Exposure to Socio-economic Disadvantage and Violence: South Africa

* This is an original submission as part of my doctoral program in International Education. It is not in APA format as a Blog post.

A Review of Literature Examining Exposure to Socio-economic Disadvantage and Violence as Contributing Factors to Low Academic Achievement in South Africa


The purpose of this literature review is to examine selected research articles which explore socio-economic disadvantage and violence as contributing factors to low academic achievement in South Africa while reviewing the impact of violence on youth in different populations.  I am reporting on the initial findings of an on-going examination I am conducting to understand how the intersectionality of violence and socio-economic disadvantage affects the academic achievement of youth who live with the challenges of victimization and poverty.

Following a summary of the history of violence in South Africa, I will provide introductory summaries of the victimized sub-populations which became apparent during my research.  I will also include suggestions to reduce violence found in the literature, and my conclusions will include further synthesize of the literature.

When I began this research, my focus was broad covering education and violence in South Africa.  As I reviewed the literature, I began to identify the categories I will discuss in this paper, and I developed the purpose of this literature review.

Historical Context of Violence in South Africa

The history of South Africa is tumultuous consisting of extended periods of conflict and oppression including European colonization, the era known as Apartheid, and the years of struggle for ethnic equality during Apartheid which ended the institutionalized political oppression of the majority of South Africans. The ending of Apartheid resulted in the current post-Apartheid era where economic disparities and violence remain embedded in South African society. The nation’s prolonged history of violence has created what might today be called a culture of violence (John, 2016, p.223).

Socio-economic Disadvantage

The literature discusses socio-economic disadvantage as poverty and inequality.  


Tugli et al. (2014) used a quantitative cross-sectional descriptive survey to study the socio-economic backgrounds of learners in rural secondary schools in Vhembe District of Limpopo province.  The study found that socio-economic disadvantage in the form of poverty is found mostly among the Black population in rural areas.  The poverty in these communities contributes to poor parental control of youth, the disintegration of traditional family structures, and a growing problem with youth gang involvement. Corene (2016) analysis of news articles from the Cape Times which covered violence in the Cape Flats area of the Western Cape supports Tugli et al. (2014) findings that violence and gang involvement are significant problems.

Poverty and pervasive inequality in the lives of Black youth in South Africa contribute to social conditions which are conducive to the development and continuation of systemic violence (Tugli et al., 2014, p.48).  John (2016) discussion of a culture of violence supports Tugli et al. (2014) on the development and continuation of systemic violence. 


Romero, Hall, Cluver, and Meinck (2018) quantitative study utilized structural equation modeling to investigate the impacts of positive parenting on school delay rates of adolescents exposed to violence from multiple sources and settings.  The study reports that school delays contribute to inequality which negatively affects educational opportunities and the quality of education available to students (Romero, Hall, Cluver, & Meinck, 2018, p. 31).

In areas of South Africa where students face socio-economic oppression student enrollment in grades below the age-appropriate grade level is a significant problem.  I recognized an apparent cycle in the literature where poverty and violence contribute to school delays, which in turn negatively impact educational opportunities leading to the inequality which perpetuates the poverty and violence of socio-economic disadvantage.



This literature review found that many youths in South Africa experience polyvictimization where violence is experienced in multiple forms and often occurs in a variety of settings. Polyvictimization is more common in South Africa among socioeconomically disadvantaged youth due to their exposure to multiple risk factors such as unemployment, family stress, overcrowded homes, and chronic poverty (Romero et al., 2018, p. 32).

After drawing on empirical data collected for a national prevalence and incidence study on child sexual abuse and maltreatment in South Africa, Leoschut and Kafarr (2017) direct attention to the frequency of polyvictimization among South African children.  The study states that victimization is rarely a one-time occurrence for children in South Africa. Children often experience multiple forms of victimization with one type of abuse making children susceptible to other forms of victimization.  Polyvictimization can be a condition which entraps children (Leoschut & Kafaar, 2017, pp, 82-83).  Romero et al. (2018) supports these findings and states that research also shows that more than 60% of youth aged 15-18 experience violence from multiple settings.  Other studies found that exposure to poly-violence increased learner's likelihood of being below grade-level and of experiencing school delay (Romero et al., 2018, p. 42).

Prevalence of Violence

McArthur (2015) reports on a national study conducted in 2012 which reveals violence in and around schools is one of the most significant problems facing young people in South Africa. Violence has reached a crisis point and has become pervasive in all aspects of the lives of many youths in South Africa (McArthur, 2015, p. 53).

Romero et al. (2018) state that the prevalence of violence in impoverished communities exposes youth to victimization from multiple sources within their schools, communities, and families.  When youth attend school, these factors place the students at high risk for low academic achievement, and in other cases, they contribute to the exclusion of youth from educational opportunities (Romero et al., 2018, p.4). 


School-based Violence

Schools are a common location for the victimization of youth with rates of school violence reaching as high as 22.2% (Leoschut & Kafaar, 2017, p. 82).

Nyokangi and Phasha (2016) conducted qualitative research using a multiple-case research design to draw conclusions from a group consisting of students identified with mild intellectual disabilities who attended a specialized school. They report that male school personnel and students are the primary perpetrators of violence against females. These violent experiences are very traumatizing to female students leading to many dropping out of school (Nyokangi & Phasha, 2016, p. 231).

South Africa's Life Orientation (LO) education program is widely considered to be ineffective in meeting its broad goal of preparing learners to be productive contributing members of South African society.  LO teachers lack the training and experience needed to meet the challenges of school violence (Lamb & Snodgrass, 2017).  Lamb and Snodgrass (2017) discuss a nonviolent pedagogical approach to the training of LO teachers.  They state that classrooms are the most common location for school violence in secondary schools in South Africa.  They also acknowledge that schoolmates are most often the perpetrators and that teachers also contribute significantly to violence against learners.  The subsequent trauma experienced by survivors of violence negatively impacts their academic lives and contributes to delinquency and criminal behaviors (Lamb & Snodgrass, 2017, p. 2).  These results are the antithesis of the desired outcomes of the LO curriculum.

The findings in Tugli et al. (2014) add to the evidence that socio-economic challenges facing families contribute to the risk of youth being victims and perpetrators of violence while at school.  They also state that school violence contributes to large numbers of youth not completing their primary or secondary education (Tugli et al., 2014, p. 48).

Family and Community Violence

In their analysis of data from the Child Community Care study, a longitudinal study of children affected by HIV/AIDS receiving services from community-based organizations in South Africa, Sherr et al. (2016) linked exposure to harsh punishment with educational outcomes.  The researchers suggest that in HIV endemic nations young children are subjected to harsh discipline and witness domestic and community violence, which may negatively impact academic progress.  Severe psychological punishment was linked to lower school enrollment among High School students (Sherr et al., 2016, p. 41).  

Family violence is found to contribute to low academic achievement. In a study using quantitative research applying multilevel aggregated structural equation modeling with 4,747 adolescent subjects, Romero, Hall, and Cluver (2019) linked school dropout rates and low math achievement to repeated exposure to physical abuse at home (Romero, Hall, & Cluver, 2019, p. 4).

Violence Against Immigrants

Hlatshwayo and Vally (2014) conducted qualitative research using narrative analysis to study violations to immigrants’ right to education and barriers to their access to education.  They studied 120 refugees and asylum seekers and reported that sub-Saharan immigrants to South Africa often arrive without adequate documentation due to civil strife and war in their home countries.  Many of their homes and schools have been destroyed, and they are unable to request documentation such as school records and identification.  The lack of documentation is a systemic problem which prevents many immigrants from having access to educational opportunities.  Exclusion from education may traumatize immigrant children and their families because acquiring education is seen as a way out of their improvised living life conditions (Hlatshwayo & Vally, 2014, p. 267).

Hlatshwayo and Vally (2014) add to this literature review's findings that xenophobia, which is one of the main causes immigrants seek refuge and asylum in South Africa, causes both physical and psychological violence and exposes families and particularly children to trauma (Hlatshwayo & Vally, 2014, p. 270).

Violence Against Students with Intellectual Disabilities

From my previous experience as a Special Education teacher, I am aware that students with disabilities are often targets of victimization.  Nyokangi and Phasha (2016) confirm this for students in South Africa while identifying that the types of violence range from bullying such as name-calling to physical violations such as groping and sexually explicit behaviors (Nyokangi & Phasha, 2016, p. 232).  Additionally, they report the literature shows that internationally people with intellectual disabilities experience higher rates of assault and sexual violence than the general population (Nyokangi & Phasha, 2016, p. 231).

In their qualitative research study employing a multiple-case research design using a group, Nyokangi and Phasha (2016) found that inadequate supervision, peer pressure, hiding reports of sexual violence, and families arranging relationships for their children are all contributing factors to school-based violence against female learners with mild intellectual disabilities (Nyokangi & Phasha, 2016, p. 235).

Gender-based Violence Against Females

Sherr et al. (2016) analysis of data from the Child Community Care study found that violence against girls negatively affected their school attendance and performance.  It acknowledges that there may be a need for further research on the impact of emotional abuse on school enrollment (Sherr et al., 2016, p. 4).

Nyokangi and Phasha (2016) identification of factors contributing to violence against females identified with mild intellectual disabilities adds to the findings on gender-based violence against females.

Violence Against Homosexual Male Youth

According to McArthur (2015), research shows that violence against sexual minorities is a pervasive problem in South African society.  When it enters the educational setting, it has lasting negative impacts on the education process (McArthur, 2015, p. 58).  

McArthur (2015) qualitative ethnographic study used formal and informal observations to assess the impact of social conditions on the development of homophobic masculinities and the resulting violence against perceived homosexual male students in a Northern Cape school.  He found that while boys and male teachers are often victims of homophobic violence, they are also often perpetrators (McArthur, 2015, p. 54).  Perpetrators of homophobic violence are often acting out their struggle to maintain their traditional male status in society.  When they experience poor academic performance, they assert themselves by oppressing peers who do not meet their acceptable social standards of masculinity (McArthur, 2015, p. 55).

Literature regarding LGBTI learners in South Africa is concerned with pervasive homophobic bullying and the lack of efforts to adequately prepare educators to address sexual and gender diversity while challenging prejudice and discrimination against sexual and gender minority students (Reygan & Francis, 2015, p. 102).

Violence Against HIV Affected Children

My research located a large body of studies examining the HIV crisis in South Africa and its impacts on society.  This literature review only briefly considered the consequences of the HIV epidemic on education as a starting point for potential future research.  It is important to note that HIV positive children appear to be at the highest risk of the negative impacts exposure to violence has on educational achievement (Sherr et al., 2016, p. 41).

Factors Impacting Academic Achievement

I found that the literature addressed academic achievement in terms of learner’s risk for low achievement and as the exclusion from educational opportunities.  These studies did not evaluate academic achievement in terms of specific mastery of learning goals and objectives, grades, or successful grade level completion. 

Risk for Low Achievement

The prevalence of violence in impoverished communities exposes youth to victimization from multiple sources within their schools, communities, and families.  When youth attend school, these factors place the students at high risk for low academic achievement, and in other cases, they contribute to the exclusion of youth from educational opportunities (Romero et al., 2019, p.4).  Romero et al. (2018) and Leoschut and Kafaar (2017) add support to the conclusions of Romero et al. (2019). 

Exclusion from Educational Opportunities

The literature identifies two factors which contribute to exclusion from educational opportunities in South Africa.  The first is the prevalence of violence in impoverished communities.  The second contributing factor is the loss of personal documentation.

The prevalence of violence in impoverished communities exposes youth to victimization from multiple sources within their schools, communities, and families.  When youth attend school, these factors place the students at high risk for low academic achievement, and in other cases, they contribute to the exclusion of youth from educational opportunities (Romero et al., 2019, p.4).

As discussed in the previous section on low academic achievement, the arrival of sub-Saharan immigrants in South Africa without adequate documentation and their inability to request documents from their home nations contributes to the systemic problems which prevent many from having access to educational opportunities (Hlatshwayo & Vally, 2014, p. 267).

Suggested Solutions Found in the Literature

The literature provides suggestions to lessen the impact socio-economic disadvantage and violence have on low academic achievement in South Africa.

Supportive Parenting

Tugli et al. (2014) and Romero et al. (2018) discuss the benefits of effective parenting on behavior and other impacts of exposure to violence. Tugli et al. (2014 ) finds that strong bonds between parents and youth tend to reduce deviant adolescent behaviors (Tugli et al., 2014, p. 2) and Romero et al. (2018) finds that supportive parenting can reduce and may compensate youth for the negative impacts resulting from exposure to frequent poly-violence (Romero et al., 2018, p. 43). The poverty associated with many of the communities and populations studied in the literature contributes to broken families where day-to-day struggles to meet basic needs supersede parent’s focus on parenting. These conditions necessitate the implementation of community-based parenting programs and the development of more economic opportunities to break the cycle of poverty if more youth are to benefit from supportive parenting. Cluver et al. (2017) provides an example of a trail parenting program and provides support for the need of these programs to help reduce adolescent’s exposure to violence.

Teacher Support

The positive support teachers provide to learners is a factor in the academic success of learners who are negatively impacted by school delay.  School-based intervention programming to give more academic support to teachers may reduce school delay that is associated with violence and socio-economic disadvantage (Romero et al., 2019, p. 17).  Lamb and Snodgrass (2017) support the need for more teacher training programs in their evaluation of the need for more training of LO teachers.

Sexual Minority Student’s Suggestions

Sexual minority male learners in this provided feedback on intervention strategies to reduce violence by creating a culture of tolerance and respect in their school and community.  They asserted that the planning and implementation of preventative strategies and other community-wide efforts should be a collaborative process involving youth, parents, and teachers (McArthur, 2015, p. 57). 


The studies found in this literature review represent the research I conducted while exploring socio-economic disadvantage and violence as factors which contribute to low academic achievement in South Africa. It is part of a broader body of my on-going research into the impacts of the intersectionality of violence and socio-economic disadvantage on the academic achievement of youth in South Africa as I work to identify the subject of my dissertation. As a result of this literature review, I have decided to include research into the effects of the HIV epidemic in South Africa on access to educational opportunities and academic achievement.

During this research, I identified studies targeting the impact of different forms of violence on specific sub-populations of youth as presented by Sherr et al. (2016), Reygan and Francis (2015), McArthur (2015), Nyokangi and Phasha (2016), Hlatshwayo and Vally (2014), Romero et al. (2018), Romero et al. (2019), Leoschut and Kafarr (2017), and Tugli et al. (2014). I also recognized two themes used to discuss challenges to successful academic achievement. They are risks to low achievement and inequality as in Hlatshwayo & Vally, 2014, Romero et al. (2019), Romero et al. (2018), and Leoschut and Kafaar (2017). School delay represented in the placement of learners in grade levels below their age appropriate levels is a common theme in the literature.

I gathered from the literature that systemic socio-economic disadvantage contributes to pervasive violence against youth in South Africa.  The negative impacts of violence are far-reaching and extend throughout South African society where conditions associated with poverty expose youth to polyvictimization.  They are victimized while at school, within their families, and in their communities.  I recognized that many youths experience repeated violence as part of their everyday lives and are entrapped in an on-going cycle where poverty subjects them to violence which leads to low academic achievement and often to their eventual exclusion from educational opportunities.  Exclusion from educational opportunities results in lifelong struggles with poverty and other forms of oppression where the cycle repeats and becomes a generational problem.  While education is a significant tool used to break this cycle the exclusion to educational opportunities faced by victims of violence severely limits survivor’s ability to break the cycle. 

The literature revealed the need for additional studies in several areas.  Romero et al. (2019) identified a severe gap in research on the relationship between teacher support and the educational outcome of South African learners identified as at-risk.  Romero et al. (2018) recognized the need for additional research to examine the relationship between low academic performance and problems associated with polyvictimization.  Nyokangi and Phasha (2016) acknowledged that research regarding connections between learners identified as having intellectual disabilities and violence is limited.  Sherr et al. (2016) stated the need for further research into the effects of emotional abuse on school enrollment and Bhana (2018) recognized that research in sub-Saharan Africa examining sexuality, gender, and violence most often excludes young girls.


Bhana, D. (2018). Girls negotiating sexuality and violence in the primary school. British Educational Research Journal, 44(1), 80-93. doi:10.1002/berj.3319

Corene, d. W. (2016). The Cape Times's portrayal of school violence. South African Journal of Education, Vol 36, Iss 2, Pp 01-12 (2016), (2), 01. doi:10.15700/saje.v36n2a1231

Cluver, L. D., Lachman, J. M., Ward, C. L., Gardner, F., Peterson, T., Hutchings, J. M., … Redfern, A. A. (2017). Development of a Parenting Support Program to Prevent Abuse of Adolescents in South Africa: Findings From a Pilot Pre-Post Study. Research on Social Work Practice, 27(7), 758–766. https://doi.org/10.1177/1049731516628647

De Wet, N., Somefun, O., & Rambau, N. (2018). Perceptions of community safety and social activity participation among youth in South Africa. PLoS ONE, 13(5), 1-11. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0197549

Francis, D. A., & Reygan, F. (2016). 'Let's see if it won't go away by itself.' LGBT microaggressions among teachers in South Africa. Education as Change, 20(3), 180-201. doi:10.17159/1947-9417/2016/1124 

Hlatshwayo, M., & Vally, S. (2014). Violence, resilience and solidarity: The right to education for child migrants in South Africa. School Psychology International, 35(3), 266-279. doi:10.1177/0143034313511004

John, V. M. (2016). Using conflict mapping to foster peace-related learning and change in schools. Education as Change, 20(2), 221-242. Retrieved from https://upjournals.co.za/index.php/EAC/article/view/756/pdf_18

Lamb, S., & Snodgrass, L. (2017). A nonviolent pedagogical approach for life orientation teacher development: The alternatives to violence project. Educational Research for Social Change, 6(2), 1-15. doi:10.17159/2221-4070/2017/v6i2a1

Leoschut, L., & Kafaar, Z. (2017). The frequency and predictors of poly-victimisation of South African children and the role of schools in its prevention. Psychology, Health & Medicine, 22, 81-93. doi:10.1080/13548506.2016.1273533

McArthur, T. (2015). Homophobic violence in a Northern Cape school: Learners confront the issue. Agenda, 29(3), 53-59. doi:10.1080/10130950.2015.1056587

Nyokangi, D., & Phasha, N. (2016). Factors contributing to sexual violence at selected schools for learners with mild intellectual disability in South Africa. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 29(3), 231-241. doi:10.1111/jar.12173

Reygan, F., & Francis, D. (2015). Emotions and pedagogies of discomfort: Teachers' responses to sexual and gender diversity in the Free State, South Africa. Education as Change, 19(1), 101-119. doi:10.1080/16823206.2014.943259

Romero, R. H., Hall, J., Cluver, L., & Meinck, F. (2018). Can supportive parenting protect against school delay amongst violence-exposed adolescents in South Africa? Child Abuse & Neglect, 78, 31-45. doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2017.09.025

Romero, R. H.., Hall, J., & Cluver, L. (2019). Exposure to violence, teacher support, and school delay amongst adolescents in South Africa. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 89(1), 1-21. doi:10.1111/bjep.12212

Sherr, L., Hensels, I. S., Skeen, S., Tomlinson, M., Roberts, K. J., & Macedo, A. (2016). Exposure to violence predicts poor educational outcomes in young children in South Africa and Malawi. International Health, 8(1), 36-43. doi:10.1093/inthealth/ihv070

Tugli, A. K., Tshitangano, T. G., Ramathuba, D. U., Akinsola, H. A., Amosu, A. M., Mabunda, J., . . . Oni, H. T. (2014). Socio-economic backgrounds of learners attending violenceprone rural secondary schools in Vhembe district, South Africa. African Journal for Physical, Health Education, Recreation & Dance, 1, 40-50. Retrieved from https://journals.co.za/content/journal/ajpherd

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