Emerging partner violence among young adolescents in a low-income country: Perpetration, victimization and adversity

PLoS One. 2020 Mar 6;15(3):e0230085. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0230085. eCollection 2020.


Background: Intimate partner violence (IPV) is prevalent in high- as well as low-income contexts. It results in a substantial public health burden and significant negative socioeconomic and health outcomes throughout the life-course. However, limited knowledge exists about IPV during early adolescence. This period is critical during the transition to adulthood for at least two reasons: it is when the majority of adolescents in low-income countries first encounter dating, sexuality and partnerships, often with older adolescents or adults, and it is also the period when lifelong patterns of violence and norms about acceptable IPV are formed. The current study is one of the first to measure IPV prevalence among young adolescents in a low-income setting, examine the potential etiology, and investigate relationships with gender ideology, poverty, mental health and childhood adversity.

Methods: We surveyed 2,089 adolescents aged 10-16 in Malawi using standardized instruments. We estimated the prevalence of IPV, and use multivariate logistic regression to test potential correlates.

Results: More than a quarter (27%) of ever-partnered adolescents in Malawi report being victimized. A substantial proportion of both male and female adolescents (15%) report committing violence against their partner. Girls were more likely than boys to report being a victim of sexual IPV (24% versus 8%), and boys more likely to perpetrate such (9% versus 1%). Almost 10% of the sample had both committed and been a victim of IPV. Cumulative childhood adversity (e.g., physical abuse, witnessing domestic violence) was a consistent and strong correlate of IPV victimization (adjusted odds ratio (aOR) 1.30) and of perpetration (aOR 1.35). Depression and PTSD were likewise associated with IPV victimization in the overall sample. Notably, gender ideology was not predictive of either victimization or perpetration, even among boys.

Conclusions: IPV is common for both male and female young Malawian adolescents, and includes both victimization and perpetration. IPV compounds other adversities experienced by adolescents in this low-income setting, and it is rarely alleviated through help from the health system or other formal support. These findings underscore the need to intervene early when interventions can still break destructive pathways and help foster healthier relationships. This focus on early adolescence is particularly critical in low-income countries given the early onset and rapid pace of the transition to adulthood, with sexual activity, dating and partnership thus being common already in young adolescence. Promising interventions would be those that reduce violence against or around children, as well as those that reduce the impacts of such trauma on mental health during adolescence.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Child
  • Crime Victims / statistics & numerical data*
  • Depression / epidemiology
  • Depression / pathology
  • Developing Countries
  • Domestic Violence / statistics & numerical data
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Intimate Partner Violence / statistics & numerical data*
  • Logistic Models
  • Malawi
  • Male
  • Odds Ratio
  • Physical Abuse / statistics & numerical data
  • Poverty
  • Prevalence
  • Sexual Partners / psychology