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Behavioral Health and Technology

Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences

Dr. Ingersoll and research scholars investigate Alcohol and Sexual Risk and Gender-based Violence in Limpopo, South Africa

July 10, 2017

Dr. Karen Ingersoll is leading a team of U.S. and South African graduate and undergraduate students to study alcohol-related sexual risk, a critical issue affecting the health of university students in South Africa.

The population most at-risk for alcohol-related sexual risk and gender-based violence in South Africa are those between the ages of 18-29. Moreover, South Africa has the world’s highest rates of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, but all of the data come from the southern provinces of the country.  Health behaviors in the far northern provinces such as Limpopo are understudied, and Dr. Ingersoll’s team is among the first to tackle the study of important and potentially taboo topics in the areas of alcohol, sex, and violence. The study uses mixed methods including qualitative interviews, quantitative measures assessing thoughts from the perspectives of both sexes. The ultimate goal is to identify the need for prevention and intervention to reduce the risks of alcohol-related sexual risks and gender-based violence broadly in the university age population of Limpopo, and to develop culturally-tailored preventive interventions suitable for these needs.

The research team includes American scholars who competed for funding for their summer research experiences from national and university funders of global health research training, paired with South African scholars at the University of Venda in Thohoyandou, a small city in northern Limpopo. Thohoyandou is a Tshivenda word meaning Head of the Elephant, named after this nearby rocky hill. Thohoyandou is surrounded by hilly and verdant areas with plantations of tea, mango, avocado, bananas, and eucalyptus.

The University of Venda ( aspires to be at the center of tertiary education for rural and regional development in Southern Africa.

On this project, students learned how to interview people about sensitive topics such as sexual behaviors, intimate partner violence, alcohol use, sexual assault, HIV, unintended pregnancy, and to modify approaches to fit local cultures.  They worked hard together before beginning the research, and always found time to laugh together. 

Students have collected data through individual interviews, focus groups, and discussion groups with students, along with stakeholders such as student leaders, faculty, local residents, and others.   Results will inform the development of recommendations and potentially, prevention interventions to minimize the risk of alcohol-related sexual risks.  Additionally, the team is testing a survey instrument that may be used for larger scale administration in village and urban settings in Limpopo in subsequent years to characterize the rate of risk for alcohol-exposed pregnancies in the province.  

Team members work closely and develop lifelong friendships, seen here after a few weeks of working together. In their free time, students explore the local culture, touring the villages of their South African friends, enjoying sights such as Blyde River Canyon, seeing animals in Kruger National Park, and hiking at Leshiba Resort.

Since returning to the U.S., Dr. Ingersoll has been keeping in touch with the team’s weekly work using What’s App audio calls.  Team members include graduate students Taylor Allen of Duke Kunshan University’s program in global public health, who is serving as the graduate assistant and near-peer mentor for other team members, Dana Kiernan of UVA’s Master’s program in Public Health, Mattia Wruble of UVA’s medical school, and Rikhotso Xongili of the University of Venda’s environmental sciences master’s program.  Undergraduates Hiwot Ekuban of UNC, who is an MHIRT program scholar, and Casey Ackerman and Neeka Nazari, who are UVA Center for Global Health Scholars, round out the team who travelled with Dr. Ingersoll to South Africa in June 2017.  Additional undergraduate team members are advanced nursing students from Univen, including Arnold Masacs, Evidence Matswalahosi Makondo, and Mukona Netshifhefhe.