Growing up during apartheid, Professor Cathy Ward became aware of the systemic nature of violence in South Africa and its devastating effects on society at a young age. This sparked her interest in research around violence prevention and has led to the creation of Parenting for Lifelong Health, an evidence-based, non-commercialised suite of programmes dealing with conflict in the home. Her exceptional dedication to violence prevention has been recognised with the 2020 University of Cape Town (UCT) Alan Pifer Award.
The prestigious award is the Vice-Chancellor's annual prize in recognition of outstanding welfare-related research. It is presented to a UCT researcher whose work has contributed to the advancement and welfare of South Africa's disadvantaged people. This year, it is shared between Ward and Professor Ambroise Wonkham.
Burden of violence
"There is an enormous amount of violence that gets perpetrated by people who are supposed to be keeping other people safe," says Ward, who is a professor in the Department of Psychology at UCT.
"This has led to a South Africa that struggles with a huge burden of violence, which is one of the things that we are going to have to conquer if we are going to be successful at having a truly democratic South Africa."
A cynic might say this is easier said than done and throw in the towel before even trying. Early in her career, however, Ward decided that this was a vision worth pursuing and that one simply had to start somewhere.
With the home often being the first place children experience violence and, in turn, learn to emulate this behaviour, Ward decided to focus her research on conflict resolution between parents/caregivers and children.
Accessible parenting programmes
She started investigating various evidence-based programmes for preventing violence against children that had been developed in high-income countries. While these programmes had impressive outcomes, they proved to be expensive and often relied on high-tech aspects such as video content, making them incompatible with users in rural South Africa and other low- to middle-income countries.
"There is an enormous amount of violence that gets perpetrated by people who are supposed to be keeping other people safe."
Recognising the need for similar programmes that are free, accessible and culturally specific, Ward joined forces with researchers at Oxford, Bangor and Reading universities in the United Kingdom, as well as Stellenbosch University to develop a suite of open access, non-commercialised parenting programmes to prevent violence in low-resource settings.
This resulted in Parenting for Lifelong Health, which is made up of four programmes, each focusing on a specific age group (infants, toddlers, young children and teens). Endorsed by the World Health Organisation, UNICEF, USAID and the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children, the programmes are available for free on the WHO website.
Over a short period, Parenting for Lifelong Health has had an outstanding impact in South African society and continues to improve the lives of families daily. An estimated 81 000 cases of child abuse have been directly averted through these programmes, which make use of mechanisms such as comic strips and roleplay to keep costs low and make the content more accessible.
The idea is that entities working in communities affected by violence can access these materials and present parenting workshops.
Although it is not a prerequisite, Ward strongly recommends that organisations making use of the materials receive some training beforehand, which is coordinated by Clowns Without Borders South Africa.
Since its successful launch in South Africa, Parenting for Lifelong Health has become a sought-after tool for prevention of violence against children worldwide.
"We've had interest from many different partners in more than 25 different countries all over the world," says Ward. "They are typically able to raise funding for the training through their own donors, but we work closely with them to help with that."
The programmes are also translated into the local language and adapted to reflect the relevant local culture.
Of course, as with any adaptations, there is the risk of veering off course from the original message.
"There isn't a whole lot of research into what's an admissible adaptation and what will change the programme," explains Ward. "So, when big changes are required, we work closely with the partner to support them to monitor the outcomes and ensure that they are still successful."
The Parenting for Lifelong Health group is, in fact, currently conducting a large-scale study focusing on the international rollout of the programme and the various outcomes.
"Our preliminary data is very encouraging, as it shows that even though we are not watching beady-eyed over everybody's shoulder (as scientists do in formal studies), the programmes are still having an effect," Ward says.
This research is being wrapped up at the end of the year, with the publication of results to follow in 2022.
Building on its success so far, the researchers behind Parenting for Lifelong Health are also working on a number of expansions.
"A lot of these families are affected by intimate partner violence as well," says Ward. "So, we're working on adapting our teen programme to address couples and co-parenting conflict as a means of reducing conflict in the family more broadly." In the broader group, digital versions of the programmes are also being developed, and similarly adapted and expanded (including to try to reduce couples conflict).
Ward has also started working on a new programme focusing on reducing violence against children at schools.
A team award
Although the Alan Pifer Award recognises Ward's outstanding leadership in conducting research that has had a positive impact on South African society, she sees it as a team award.
"I haven't done any of this on my own," says Ward. "There are my academic colleagues, but also all the research assistants, the field staff who've collected data, the folks in the research office who've managed the contract and so many others who have helped made this work possible, and without them, none of this would have happened - so this is also their award."
"This is my small bit of contributing to hopefully a democratic South Africa and to a world where children can grow up safely," she concludes.