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Youth violence

Perhaps one of the most politically unpopular truths about violence is that it is young people who are most vulnerable to it – not the elderly or children, but youth. Global estimates from the World Health Organization are that, each year, 200,000 young people aged between 10 and 29 are murdered, and the majority of these are young men. That age group accounts for 40% of the homicides globally, and homicide is the fourth leading cause of death in that age group.

While this is a worldwide problem, it is particularly acute in low- and middle-income countries. In my own home, South Africa (a middle-income country), Richard Matzopoulos and colleagues conducted a careful investigation of injury-related deaths in 2009, published this year in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization. Using the rates per 100,000, a standard approach to representing public health problems in the population, they found that in the age-group 5-14, there were 3.1 murders per 100,000 population – but in the age-group 15-29, that jumped to 56.7 per 100,000 – more than 18 times higher than the younger age-group.

Death is, of course, not the only consequence of violence, nor is murder the only form of violence. Dating and sexual violence are also prevalent among young people. Injuries, mental health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder, and behaviours (such as smoking and alcohol use) that put people at risk for other serious health problems, are also common – perhaps even more common – consequences of violence.

Young people are not only most likely to be victims of violence, but also most likely to be perpetrators. Age-crime curves – curves that plot convictions for crime against age – reliably show, in every age and country for which they are available, that crime and violent crime peak in youth.

Together, the facts that youth are most likely to be both victims and perpetrators of violence, and the serious consequences of violence, should make the prevention of youth violence a very high priority for policy-makers around the world. And while the figures I have just given may seem overwhelming, violence – including youth violence – can indeed be prevented. There is now sufficient evidence to guide policy-makers to implement effective prevention initiatives, according to WHO’s latest violence prevention manual.

At first glance, the list of evidence-based, effective interventions seems odd, if one is aiming to prevent youth violence. Some of them, for instance, are aimed at infants (even pregnant women). However, it is clear from developmental science that the propensity for youth violence is shaped by factors at play from conception and throughout development. For instance, babies who are neurologically compromised (such as those who have difficulty concentrating – possibly because their mothers were malnourished, or smoke or drank during pregnancy) and who are born to parents who use harsh, inconsistent discipline, are very likely to grow up aggressive. This coincidence of risk factors is also most likely in contexts of poverty, where children may also be deprived of the early cognitive stimulation that would set them up well for school; where they might attend schools where bullying is rife; where there may be little access to therapy for behavioural problems; and where they might live in neighbourhoods where drugs and guns are easily available, and where gang violence is prevalent.

While this is of course complex, it should not be disheartening: all it means is that every sector of civil society and every government department has a role to play in reducing violence. WHO’s hottest picks for the strategies with the most evidence behind them are:

  • Parenting programmes (usually the domain of government departments dealing with child protection)
  • Early child development programmes
  • Life and social skills development (easily delivered through schools)
  • Bullying prevention programmes (another that falls in the domain of schools)
  • Therapeutic interventions (offered by schools, social welfare departments, departments of health, or departments of correctional services)
  • Hotspot, community- and problem-oriented policing
  • Reducing access to alcohol and reducing the harmful use of alcohol (this includes a wide range of strategies, such as increasing taxes on alcohol, and training bartenders not to serve those who are drunk)
  • Reducing access to drugs (in the domain of customs, border protection, and the police)
  • Reducing access to and the misuse of firearms
  • Urban upgrading, spatial modification and the de-concentration of poverty (in the domain of urban planning).

The good news about violence is that it can be prevented; the second piece of good news is that almost every sector can make a contribution to violence prevention. And since most violence is youth violence, violence prevention should begin with a focus on children and young people. The third piece of good news about violence prevention is that these same strategies not only reduce violence, but promote healthy youth development – the development of young people who have social skills and secure relationships, and who do well at school – and who are therefore most likely to become employed, tax-paying adults who contribute to their societies. Violence prevention is therefore not only the right thing to do: it also makes economic sense for governments. What is invested in violence prevention is likely to be saved by reduced costs of violence and increased gains from more employable youth, making youth violence prevention a true win-win.

Featured image: Photo by PublicDomainPictures. CC0 via Pixabay

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