Knowledge provides alternatives to a life of crime for urban youth

August 08, 2016
Mayssam Zaaroura

An in-depth look at youth violence points to a variety of solutions to prevent crime, including mental health support, building community trust, keeping kids in school, and creating job opportunities.

What happens when youth are prevented from having an education, meaningful employment, and the promise of a safe and secure future? What are the consequences for youth who are excluded and marginalized by their governments because of unfair policies, and by their own communities because of misconceptions? Is there an association between youth unemployment and youth violence?

IDRC-funded research is focusing on the links between these questions and rising youth violence in several regions globally. These analyses explore various approaches to improve the lives of youth with policies that promote employment, educational opportunities, and social inclusion.

Out of school and into crime

Findings from several projects under the Safe and Inclusive Cities initiative—funded by IDRC and the UK Department for International Development—show that government policies have failed to keep up with the changing reality in African cities and have even become drivers of youth violence. Youth gangs are consistently growing larger, and their members are younger than ever. Research in 10 cities in Ghana, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Côte d’Ivoire, has revealed that boys and girls as young as 10 years old are drawn into violent criminal gangs. A greater number of children and youth than anticipated—and at a much younger age—are using drugs and learning to use violence to survive on the streets.

There are approximately 1.8 billion young people between the ages of 10 and 24 globally—the largest youth population ever, reports the United Nations.

National and local governments struggle to decide which should be responsible for security at the local level, and where they can find the resources to police an ever-growing urban population. But exclusionary government policies related to public housing, education, and family planning also need reform. In the DRC, for example, women give birth to an average of 10 children each. The country’s high birth rate creates households overflowing with idle youth, who have become the driving force behind the shift to violence. Excluded from the education system due to poverty and socioeconomic inequalities, youth, mainly boys, perceive the use of violence as an important life skill. Many of these young gang members, such as the Microbes in Abidjan or the Kuluna in Kinshasa, consider themselves to be “socially dead” and have turned to gang life for a sense of belonging and community. “They told me they could ‘do the unbelievable’ when they are high on widely-available drugs,” says Francis Akindes, a professor from the Université de Alassane Ouattara in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, who interviewed members of the Microbes gang. 

pregnant women
Sven Torfinn / Panos
Very high birth rates in the Democratic Republic of Congo—averaging 10 children per woman—coupled with a lack of resources, has increased marginalization and social exclusion of youth in the country.

While boys tend to use violence, girls often act as gang scouts by identifying and luring potential victims and keeping watch for police. With girls in gangs, family structures within the context of the gang are reproduced, with girls and boys forming bonds, marrying, and having children who grow up in this violent and insecure subculture.

Repressive state security policies in Central America that take a “tough on crime” approach—instead of focusing on targeted social and economic opportunities—play into the hands of organized crime and increasing violence among youth. IDRC-supported research from a project in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras found that the vast majority of youth are marginalized and excluded from jobs, education, and access to quality services, and are facing violence at home and in their communities.

Not all youth gangs are created equal, as partners in Latin America have shown. Some gangs operate to fill gaps in policing and security services, while others are tightly linked to transnational organized crime. Distinctions between the two can be fluid; some youth join gangs with the goal of increasing community security, but soon find themselves extorting money to offer protection. Public policies should avoid writing off gang members as merely criminals, and focus instead on removing youth from gangs before they become violent.

Solutions for better futures

Researchers in South America found that violence prevention, employment opportunities, and quality services are more effective tactics than repression; justice that focuses solely on punishment and imprisonment does not work. Policing practices need to be modified to respect basic human rights, provide mental health support for youth, and build trust within communities.

In West and Central Africa, research partners suggest that raising the mandatory school leaving age will keep kids off the street and get them back into schools. Improvements to public housing in slums and expanding family planning programs will create stable families and homes that are welcoming to children. To successfully address youth violence, the state and communities must share responsibility to build better futures for youth.

The greatest concentration of the world’s youth is in developing countries. Youth make up the majority of the population in the world’s 48 least developed countries.

In Latin America, IDRC’s partner Interpeace gathered stakeholders at the local, regional, and national levels (including youth, churches, community members, civil society, the private sector, and local governments) to participate in a consultative process to advocate for change in public policies.

Adopting an approach that promotes improved access to education, employment, justice, and services to reduce violence has resulted in the amendment of policies in Guatemala and Honduras and the creation of a Central American working group for youth.

Creating safer spaces for youth

IDRC will continue to focus on youth economic vulnerability and the link between the lack of job opportunities and violence in Africa and Latin America. In West Africa, a solution-oriented project will aim to develop understanding of how youth can avoid the pitfalls of violence and criminality, and their capacity to resist falling into a life of violence.

In the Middle East and North Africa, IDRC is supporting Arab youth in confronting the region’s challenges related to insecurity and exclusion. The aim is to stabilize and build resilience in the present while alleviating political and security challenges in the future. Led by the Arab Reform Initiative the studies will cover black and LGBT youth rights, citizenship rights, conflict-zone governance, and alternative political participation in Tunisia, Lebanon, Algeria, and Syria.

IDRC is also partnering with the Carlos Slim Foundation to strengthen security for youth at risk of violence and organized crime. This project brings experts, civil servants, youth, and civil society leaders in Mexico and Central America together to address social inequalities that develop into risks for youth.

Youth participation and leadership in political processes are critical factors that promote greater accountability and transparency in governance. 

With these projects and upcoming research, IDRC and its research partners are working towards gathering sufficient knowledge to create safer spaces for youth, women and girls, and marginalized populations around the world.

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