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30 Jan 2015

Education in Situations of Urban Violence: Examples from Latin America By Jovana Carapic and Luisa Phebo

By Jovana Carapic, and Luisa Phebo, Conflict, Violence, Education and Training (CV-ET) Programme, NORRAG.

The world is facing an unprecedented demographic transition: it is simultaneously becoming younger and more urbanized than at any other point in history. This transition is extremely skewed. Of the estimated 3.1 billion people that are under the age of 25, the majority are living in the rapidly growing unplanned urban settlements that characterize the cities of Latin America, Africa, and Asia (UN-Habitat 2013; UNESCO GMR 2012: 257). In such contexts, disadvantaged (i.e. unemployed and undereducated) urban youth (males in particular) are not only more likely to be the perpetrators of urban violence, but to also to be victims of it.

Inherent within many international policy debates is the assumption that education – broadly conceived to include formal and non-formal learning and training processes – plays a key role in this demographic transition (UNESCO, 2014: 2). Education is put forth as essential both for fostering economic development (by nurturing human capital capable of at­tracting investment, talent, and innovation) and reducing urban violence (by increasing socio-economic inclusion and upward mobility of disadvantaged urban youth) (UN-Habitat 2013: xvii).

Yet, there is very little guidance (or evidence) on the kinds of educational strategies national and metropolitan governments, school boards, and local communities can (or should) develop and implement in order to effectively respond to urban violence. The experience of Latin America – which is simultaneously one of the most urbanized, violent, and youngest regions (GBAV, 2011:52) – allows for a possibility to elaborate upon some useful strategies for dealing with the problem of urban violence.

Urban Violence in Latin and Central America

In the last few decades, access to education in Latin and Central America has greatly improved, resulting in the achievement of nearly universal access to primary education and dramatically increasing rates of secondary level enrollment in the region. Despite these improvements, urban violence continues to persist, and in some countries has even increased.

Honduras is one of the most violent countries in the world, with homicide rates climbing from 30 to more than 70 deaths per 100,000 between 2004 and 2012 (GBAV, 2011: 67). Despite the ongoing ‘truce’ between competing gang factions, homicides in El Salvador increased 57 percent between 2013 and 2014, translating into a homicide rate of 63 per 100,000. These rates are higher than those recorded in some conflict zones. In 2012, Afghanistan and Iraq registered death rates of 6.5 and 8.0 per 100,000, respectively (UNODC, 2014: 22; also see GBAV, 2011: 52, 5).

Reflecting global trends, violence in Latin and Central America takes the form of civic conflict – in the sense that it is primarily an urban phenomenon and is related to population density, drug trafficking, availability of small arms, repressive security forc­es, and absent (or ineffective) public goods and service provision (Beall et al, 2011; GBAV, 2011). In addition, it also disproportionately affects youth, especially young men.

This begs the question: how do we explain the rising levels of urban violence in light of educational improvements in the region? Part of the answer appears to relate to the uneven distribution (both in terms of quantity and quality) of educational opportunities in the region.

Uneven distribution of education driving urban violence

Although, individuals living in urban areas are generally considered to have an educational advantage, in reality the uneven rate of urban growth fundamentally undermines availability (UNICEF, 2012: 28). While good schools and training facilities are likely to be found all over the city, individuals coming from lower socio-economic backgrounds have limited access to them (UN Millennium Project 2005: 15).

This uneven distribution of educational facilities results in the creation of disparities between youth coming from poorer neighbourhoods and those residing in the better off areas of the city. For instance, Honduras is expected to achieve universal lower secondary school completion in the 2030s – this, however, is only projected for the richest sector of the population. When the poorest youth are taken into account, the projections indicate that universal lower secondary education will only be reached by 2130 (EFA GMR, 2013: 1).

This disparity is compounded by the inability of the formal education system to keep students enrolled in school. According to UNESCO (2012: 34), around 17% of students in Latin America and the Carribean leave school before completing primary education. The figure is even higher when secondary education is taken itno account, and according to estimates produced by the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), nearly 50% of students in Latin America do not finish secondary school.

According to the Geneva Declaration’s Global Burden of Armed Violence (GBAV) 2011, there seems to be an intimate relationship between lethal violence and education in urban settings: higher levels of homicide tend to occur in places that register lower levels of educational attainment (especially in terms of primary education enrolment ratios). Based on this insight, the GBAV provides a hypothesis for the link between education and violence:

[T]he inability of a society to keep its youth in the education system during a particularly risk-prone age can make them more predisposed to violence. Specifically, they may be more susceptible to recruitment into armed groups, such as gangs… In turn, this trajectory would deny them the productive capacities required to enter the labour market, thus further contributing to a downward spiral (GBAV, 2011: 156).

In line with this finding, high dropout rates and school delay in Latin and Central America are seen as key factors leading to the involvement of youth in the perpetration of violence (UN/ECOSOC, 2013: 4). Schools, educational staff and students are often targets in vulnerable areas. Teachers’ turnover in poor communities is frequently high due to harassment and limited mobility. Furthermore, evidence shows that in many countries, such as Honduras and El Salvador, criminal groups use schools for recruitment and extortion of students (UNICEF, 2014: 15). The widespread climate of fear and insecurity greatly hinders schools of being positive and safe learning environments.

Educational Strategies for dealing with urban violence in Latin America

Many countries in the region have recently been developing and implementing innovative educational projects that go beyond increasing access to education and towards strengthening community bonds and creating mechanisms of social protection. These initiatives adopt a more comprehensive take on education, promoting interactions between educationalists and other relevant community actors (especially formal security forces and the private sector), and foster non-formal education and skills development initiatives aimed at facilitating the transition of youth from perpetrators of urban violence into generative citizens (i.e. those that are included into society and economy) (NORRAG, 2014).

One prominent trend in Latin and Central America is the increased reliance on school–police partnerships for dealing with urban violence. While these initiatives do not directly aim to alter the quality of education provided to students, the inherent assumption is that the increased  presence of security in schools will lead to a more secure, and therefore conducive, learning environment.

In El Salvador, for example, the Ministry of Education and the National Police have developed a series of initiatives to intensify the presence of security forces at schools. The project ‘Safe Schools’ has assigned additional security personnel to patrol over 300 of the most vulnerable schools and their surroundings. This initiative is supplemented by the ‘School Police’ project, which promotes closer interaction between the police and the local community through increased engagement of police officers in violence prevention and provision of extracurricular activities (such as sports).

Together, the overall aim of the two initiatives is to simultaneously deter youth from dropping out of school and turning to crime and violence, and to promote a culture of peace in the community through dialogue and engagement with security forces. A similar approach is also being implemented in Brazil, under the Pacification Police Units (UPP) programme (World Bank, 2013).

The increased reliance on school–police partnerships is controversial, however, as evidence suggests that they are not particularly effective. A recent study in New York, for instance, found that despite increased police presence, students enrolled at schools with school-police partnerships continued to experience higher than average problems in school and were still more likely to engage in future criminality (Brady et al, 2007).

The increased presence of security personnel in Latin and Central American schools has also been criticized, largely due to the history of ‘heavy-handed’ – Mano Dura – policies and abusive actions undertaken by police and military in the region (Jütersonke, et al). The presence of security personnel on school property has led not only to the militarization of schools in countries like El Salvador, but also made facilities and students more likely to become targets (e.g in El Salvador and Honduras).

Nevertheless, renewing the relationship with the police and military can be a starting point for restoring trust within communities. The increased presence of the police in UPP controlled areas, for instance, has had the positive effect of attracting local investment for additional educational initiatives.

The Rio de Janeiro’s Sate Federation of Industry (FIRJAN) has developed the SESI Cidadania program that promotes vocational training courses and basic education to youth and adults out of school.  Education departments in Brazil and Honduras have partnered with the ICRC to develop a project that fosters a culture of prevention and dialogue inside public schools. The “Creating Humanitarian Spaces” (CHS) initiative promotes trainings on humanitarian values and violence prevention, including first aid and psychological assistance. In this sense, including the issue of violence in the curriculum of public schools and its practices can support the school community to better cope with violence in its surroundings.

While the impact of these interventions deserve a more detailed assessment (both in terms of why they have been selected over other initiatives that increase the quality of education, for instance), the Latin America experience offers a broader perspective on the (positive and negative) role of education in situations of urban violence, and how the education and security sectors can coordinate and collaborate in practice to deal with the complex phenomenon of violence. The NORRAG Educational Strategies for Dealing with Urban Violence (ESDUV) Project, aims to shed more light on the relationship between education and urban violence, and showcase some of the mechanisms through which youth could transition from a life of crime and violence into generative civic engagement. In the process, the project aims to serve as a tool for national and international policy makers and, in turn, influence programming decisions and outcomes both in the field of education and security provision.

Jovana Carapic is Research Officer for NORRAG’s Conflict, Violence, Education and Training (CVET) Programme. She has extensive expertise in the field of conflict studies, in particular on urban violence and the relationship between various forms of armed groups and the state. Her research has taken her to East Timor, Nepal, and Serbia. Email:

Luisa Phebo is part of NORRAG’s Conflict, Violence, Education and Training (CVET) team. She has previously worked at Viva Rio’s project management department in Brazil, and recently spent one month in Haiti visiting the organisation’ programmes as an independent researcher. Email:

>> Related post: Beyond Armed Conflict and Emergency: the Role of Education and Training in Tackling Urban Violence (Sept 2014)

NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,200 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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