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Urban violence
Goals for peace


Around the world, National Societies take on urban violence by aiming at the root causes. Violence prevention is hard work. But, occasionally, it can also be a matter of fun and games.

GROUP OF CHILDREN are kicking a ball around a dusty field in a suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa. To the casual observer, it looks like a typical game of football. In fact, the vigorous match is part of a South African Red Cross Society strategy to end discrimination by bringing young people of different backgrounds together to play. The programme, called Soccer Against Crime, sets out to prevent the kind of violence against foreigners that devastated Gauteng province in 2008.

Dozens of National Societies are creating initiatives like this one, focused on children and young people. By building up their self-esteem, teaching new skills and demonstrating peaceful mediation of conflict, these strategies aim to prevent or reduce urban violence in a lasting way. The youth programmes take various forms, from rehabilitating former child soldiers in Sierra Leone to giving kids in Central America an alternative to joining gangs.

“We found that many young people don’t participate in the life of their community,” says Juan José Martinez Solis, violence prevention coordinator for the Spanish Red Cross. “Nobody listens to them and they don’t feel like part of the neighbourhood. Gangs give them a sense of belonging. Our work is to help them become part of their communities, and for communities to value what young members have to offer.”

In 2006, the Spanish Red Cross and National Societies in Central America and the Caribbean finalized a strategy to prevent urban violence in eight countries in the region. The Spanish Red Cross has been active in the area since Hurricane Mitch struck in 1998.

The Violence Prevention Regional Strategy targets youth leaders who are at risk of joining gangs, or maras, and involves them in a variety of social projects that differ from country to country.

In Guatemala, the focus is on the arts, such as theatre, hip-hop and singing. In Nicaragua, young people are learning to make small objects like necklaces and bracelets by hand, and sell them in their communities for pocket money. In Panama and the Dominican Republic, the focus is on the environment, encouraging youth to help clean up national parks and coastlines.

Private violence

The Canadian Red Cross has had a programme called RespectED in place since 1984 to prevent violence against children and youth. It includes a series of educational programmes to stop bullying, harassment, dating violence and abuse, and has been expanded to urban settings in Sri Lanka and Guyana.

“Gang violence is a visible, public culmination of violence that begins in the private sphere and shapes children’s lives,” wrote Judi Fairholm, director of the RespectED programme, in an article she co-authored on the subject. “In order to understand public manifestations of violence, the violence that occurs in private spaces like child abuse in homes and bullying in schools must be examined and recognized as root causes that fuel a trajectory towards gangs and life on the street.”

The Norwegian Red Cross has run a street mediation programme for young people in Norway since 2006. Anne Cecilie Fossum, the National Society’s senior adviser of conflict management, talks about a 19-year-old immigrant girl who grew up in a difficult environment.

“She was an aggressive gang leader in Oslo and good at manipulating her helpers. Some people from the Red Cross told her, ‘You have abilities, and we can help you turn them into something positive’.”

Today she is a role model, teaching conflict management to her peers nationwide.

Agents of change

Meanwhile, the IFRC has been developing a global strategy to reverse the culture of violence, and urban violence in particular. In 2008, Katrien Beeckman, IFRC director of principles and values, created a programme called Youth as Agents of Behavioural Change, which empowers young people to take the lead in changing mindsets and behaviour, and in building a culture of equality, non-violence and social inclusion. Peer education is key.

So far, a network of youth leaders from over 40 National Societies have learned unconventional ways to teach behavioural skills such as empathy, active listening, critical thinking, non-judgement, mediation and peaceful settlement of tensions.

“Equipping youth with behavioural skills is essential,” Beeckman says, “if we really want to embody and be a living example of our Movement’s seven fundamental principles. Empathy is a case in point for humanity, dropping bias and non-judgement for impartiality and neutrality.

“What also appeals to youth is that we don’t start the programme with an intellectual analysis. We get the young people to participate in role-playing games or visualization exercises. They feel emotions related to a topic, in light of their personal experiences. Then, through debriefings with their peers, they construct themselves and their understanding.”

Amy Serafin
Freelance writer based in Paris

The Red Cross Society of Panama gets at violence by engaging teens in art projects, environmental causes, nature hikes, research projects and music, among other things. In Santa Ana, Panama, a teen group performs as part of an event celebrating the rights of children.
©Red Cross Society of Panama








“Nobody listens to young people, and they don’t feel like part of the neighbour hood. Gangs give them a sense of belonging.”
Juan José Martinez Solis, Violence prevention coordinator for the Spanish Red Cross











Young volunteers gather outside Bamako, Mali in December 2008 for a training camp on how to promote respect, non-discrimination and peace. The event was supported by the Mali Red Cross and the IFRC.











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