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The Long-Term Harm Caused by Short-Term Exposure to Violence

• July 02, 2013 • 1:28 PM

Police cordon off Uhuru Park to bar opposition from holding a mass protest rally. (PHOTO: DEMOSH/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

A study of the political upheaval in Kenya shows what harm violence can have on the children who witness it.

The international news page brings us reports of political upheaval and violence all over the world: sometimes incredibly drawn-out and tense, as in Egypt and Israel and Palestine, for instance, or sometimes seemingly sudden and furious, as in Tanzania and western China. Other clashes have such massive casualty and refugee numbers that they resist categorization. Even if these tensions are quelled, and the reporters pack up and leave, how will these episodes reverberate for the rest of the survivors’ lives?

A hint of the long-lasting impact on the youngest and most vulnerable from these regions is forthcoming in the journal Psychology of Violence, in a report on the aftermath of the 2007-2008 political crisis in Kenya.

“In school, children who had sat side by side one week were suddenly being told they were enemies.”

The study was conducted by a team of researchers from Kenya, Italy, and the U.S., led by Ann T. Skinner of the Duke University Center for Child and Family Policy. Studying the effect of violence was not actually the team’s original intent. Skinner and her colleagues had gone to Kenya to study parenting methods, and just happened to be there when civil unrest was sparked by the results of the December 2007 presidential election.

The series of ethnically based attacks that followed the election killed more than 1,100 people and injured over 3,500; hundreds of thousands more were displaced. By April 2008, several political leaders had negotiated a power-sharing agreement that eventually calmed the violence.

When working with families in Kisumu, Kenya, Skinner and her colleagues found that many of the children who had witnessed the clashes exhibited troubling behavior more than a year after the violence had subsided. According to their report, these children “showed increased delinquent and aggressive behaviors, including such problem behaviors as bullying, vandalism, stealing and skipping school.”

The widespread impact of these problems perhaps reflected the immediacy of the conflict. Upheaval in Kenya was brief but horrible. According to Duke University, during this episode, “Gunfire and death were suddenly so common that in a survey of 100 Kisumu youths and their mothers, more than half of mothers reported seeing a dead body, and 95 percent of children heard gunshots.”

The fighting was personal, and it hit close: “The violence split neighborhoods and classrooms among ethnic lines,” Skinner said. “In school, children who had sat side by side one week were suddenly being told they were enemies.”

Past studies have looked at exposure to chronic violence and its effect on child development—for instance, in dangerous urban areas in the U.S., and in politically unstable places and periods, like Northern Ireland in the 1960s and ’70s—and have found similar resulting behavior. But brief flare-ups of violence have not quite been studied to the same degree.

This particular study demonstrates that professional assessments, treatment, and psychological counseling should continue for much longer after a violent event than was previously understood.

A child’s physical safety is obviously paramount. But when the immediate danger subsides, that is when the real psychological work with each young witness begins.

Lauren Kirchner
Lauren Kirchner is the Web editor of The Baffler. She has written for the Columbia Journalism Review, Capital New York, Slate, The Awl, The Hairpin, and many others. Follow her on Twitter @lkirchner.

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