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Youth at risk: The link between youth violence and urbanisation

A young girl carrying a load of firewood in Kibera slum, Nairobi, Kenya, October 2007. People are dependent on firewood and paraffin as a source of energy. Manoocher Deghati/IRIN
A young girl carrying a load of firewood in Kibera slum, Nairobi, Kenya

In many parts of the world, rampant poverty continues to drive millions of young people towards cities in hope of a better life.

Being at a critical stage in their lives, they are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, under-employment and poor health, as they gather in crowded informal settlements with insufficient infrastructures. 

In economically stagnant Kyrgyzstan, many young people like Kuban are forced to migrate to town in order to find their way out of poverty: “After completing my military service, I was at home because there were no jobs in my village. Then my parents decided to send me to Bishkek. My older sister was already there selling cigarettes, chewing-gum and other stuff on the street.” 

All over the world, many young people like Kuban are sent by their families to urban areas in order to financially support the family back in the village. For many, the dream of getting an education and a good job is likely to vanish due to the lack of socio-economic opportunities: “I came here two years ago and could not go to university. Now I work to help my family in Batken, southern Kyrgyzstan. I have three younger brothers and two younger sisters,” Alayek, 19, told IRIN. 

Youth and urbanisation

UN agencies describe youth as the age group between 15- and 24-years-old. For the first time in history, the year 2007 will see the world’s urban population exceed its rural population. This reversed demographic trend poses a major challenge to the young population as “youth often constitute a disproportionately large part of rural-to-urban migrants,” said political scientist Henrik Urdal. 

The most significant changes are taking place in developing nations, whose urban areas are growing four to five times faster than in the developed world, according to UN-HABITAT. Meanwhile, these countries are now hosting an unprecedented number of young people, totalling 1.3 billion, “the most ever in history”, according to the World Development Report 2007. 

Young people are often particularly determined to escape remote or economically stagnant areas. For the majority, being young also means greater freedom from family responsibilities and consequently more flexibility to migrate to urban areas and build better lives. In developing countries, this transition is likely to translate into struggle as formal employment opportunities are scarce. In many African cities, urban youth are neither fully employed nor entirely unemployed. Many find a way of living as small entrepreneurs in the informal jobs sector. 

However, with accelerating urbanisation, it is the possible formation of new enclaves of poverty and instability that have become an area of major concern. As of today, UN-HABITAT estimates the proportion of slum-dwellers to reach respectively 72 and 60 percent of the urban population in Africa and South Central Asia. However, the problem will be exacerbated due to the fact that the proportion of urban slums is expected to double by 2030. 

Cities are an especially dangerous place for young women who move on the promise of domestic work, but who often find themselves working as sex workers. This is particularly true in east Asia, where women are trafficked for sexual exploitation in destinations throughout Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe and North America. 

Urbanisation and the rise of violence

Many observers note that the combination of rapid urbanisation and a “youth bulge” - a high proportion of young people relative to the adult population - can be explosive. 

In Chad’s capital city, N’Djaména, city dweller Tedangar told IRIN: “Those rural people come to the cities and become bandits. They wander the city, incredibly aggressive, holding knives and machetes, the slightest thing make them become violent.” 

According to the UN World Youth Report 2005: “Crime rates tend to be higher in urban areas than in rural areas, which may be attributable to differences in social control and social cohesion. Many of the urban poor live in slum and squatter settlements with overcrowded, unhealthy housing and a lack of basic services.” 

This particularly concerns African cities, “Where unplanned urban growth has become a central component of urbanisation, crime seems to be a near-constant threat,” according to Mark Sommers, senior technical advisor for Youth at Risk at Care International. 

Statistics are difficult to determine due to the insufficient level of victim reporting and the “informal” or underground nature of criminal activities. As Tedangar noted: “…having no established home and identity papers, the police find it hard to identify [the criminals] after the crime has been committed.” 

African police agencies record more assaults and sexual attacks than their counterparts elsewhere. Considering the incidence of theft, robbery and assault in urban areas, a recent study published by the South African-based Institute for Security Studies, estimated that individuals living outside metropolitan areas were between 45 percent and 50 percent less at risk in comparison with their urban counterparts. 

Youth as main actors and victims of urban violence

Internationally, most crimes are committed by males between the ages of 15 and 30 says UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime). This particular group is also thought to constitute most of the victims. 

“The new, globalised world is not necessarily a safer one for youth,” said Luke Dowdney, British anthropologist and founder of the “Fight for Peace” project in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 

According to the World Youth Report 2005, published by the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) of the UN Secretariat, not only do “young people constitute the most criminally active segment of the population”, but they are also the main victims of violence perpetrated in cities. 

This is partly due to the fact that “the likelihood of becoming a victim of violence is much higher for gang members than it is for members of other peer groups”, notes the report. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that nearly 200,000 youth murders took place in 2000 alone. 

Recently, this has been illustrated by bloody incidents in Mathare, one of Africa’s largest, most overcrowded slums in Nairobi, Kenya. According to residents, the row started over control of a lucrative illicit brew market between the rival “Mungiki” and ”Taliban” gangs. 

In a recent study of youth gangs in El Salvador, known as “maras” or “pandillas”, Marlon Carranza, a researcher at the José Siméon Cañas Central American University, discovered that: “the majority of violent acts involving a firearm committed by gang members targeted other young people. Of the members interviewed, 63.2 percent said that the last act of violence they were involved in was against a member of a rival gang.” 

Paradoxically, regular harassment can also be a contributing factor to join gangs. One interviewee in San Salvador city reportedly joined the pandillas gang Barrio 18 to get revenge against a rival band whose members used to abuse him at school: “Whenever I went to school, […] when I went to the vending machines they robbed me and I got so tired of it that I joined up with the 18, and they are going to pay…” 

Brought up in violence

In Cape Town, South Africa, street gangs became alarmingly common after the Second World War. This remains the case due to constant drug and turf-war violence. 

“Gang life is a religion to my family. My father and grandfather were in gangs and they have done time in jail – I will probably end up there as well; it is where you learn about respect and get status,” said Tacky, 16, a member of the Thug Life gang. 

Living in unstable social environments, young people are more vulnerable and less able to protect themselves against the influence of their families or peers. They are also more likely to replicate violent behaviours if already immersed in a violent culture. 

Youth susceptibility to crime highly depends on “the circumstances they were brought up in”, said Professor Brian Robertson, former head of Cape Town University’s Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health. 

“What seems to be happening is that these youngsters committed murder or rape in response to wanting to join a gang, or because they came from a background of abuse or neglect. Almost all of these people came from families where violence was an everyday phenomenon,’’ he added. 

In his study of El Salvador youth gangs, Carranza stressed the impact of unstable families and domestic abuse as a factor for enlistment. One interviewee reportedly joined following violent relationships with her stepfather: “If your stepfather wants to abuse you […] you can tell your mom, but she doesn’t believe you,” she explained. 

What policies to tackle youth crime?

It is often presumed that a young person’s upbringing is crucial in shaping his future disposition towards violence. The World Youth Report 2005 emphasises the potential positive impact of “the family, as the primary institution of socialisation of youth […] in the prevention of juvenile delinquency and underage crime.” 

In general, UN instruments focus on social rather than judicial approaches, as shown in the Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice, 1985, and the Guidelines for the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency, 1990.

The UN Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, 2005, focused on the fact that strategic prevention has proved far more effective and cost-beneficial than suppression and deterrent approaches. 

However, most states tend to view youth as a potential threat to internal security and focus on punitive strategies, which, if not combined with preventive policies, can only exacerbate tensions and fears of stigmatisation on the part of young offenders, say youth advocates. 

“States are responsible for attempting to deal with armed groups primarily via reactive and repressive policing and legislative policy. At worst, this includes arbitrary imprisonment, torture and summary executions. States cannot be held responsible for the violence which investigated armed groups perpetrate. However, their focus on repression has failed in most cases to reduce either the presence of the groups or the level of violence in which they are involved,” argued Dowdney. 

Youth as a threat

Whereas youth involvement in urban crime is not a new phenomenon, there has been a growing awareness of the dangers posed by youth violence in urban environments, especially in the 1990s when gang cultures became more popularised through the media. States now view youth as a matter of internal security. 

In literature, this trend has been illustrated by political scientist Robert Kaplan, author of “The Coming Anarchy” (1994) and “The Ends of the Earth” (1996). The books predict that “the perpetrators of future violence will likely be urban born”. According to Kaplan, young people in West African cities are “loose molecules in an unstable social fluid that threatens to ignite”. 

Commenting on the recent youth riots that took place in France in the autumn of 2005, sociologist Laurent Muchielli argued that, although the acts of violence cannot be denied, they raised an exaggerated “collective fear” among the general public, which is symptomatic of a general trend of increasing sensitivity to violence in Western society. 

In October 2005, the French suburbs, mainly immigrant ghettos around Paris and other major towns, became major “boiling points” as young people revolted against the accidental deaths of two young people trying to escape the police in the town of Clichy-sous-Bois. 

Unwanted youth

Other observers argue that the link between youth and violence in urban areas needs to be better explained, and that it often reveals an increasing feeling of alienation and lack of productive participation in society on the part of young people. 

There is a “central irony surrounding urban youth: that they are a demographic majority that sees itself as an outcast minority. The implications of such alienation and distance from civil society are considerable,” said Sommers.

Sommers stresses the necessity to “transform [our] perceptions of urban youth” so that they are no longer seen as the core of the problem but as part of the solution. 

Indeed, there is a necessity to combine efforts to help restore young peoples’ confidence in the future, and to offer them alternatives to violent quick-fixes to their problems. 

In Cape Town, Michael Leunissen, former gangster in the “28s” (one of South Africa’s most notorious prison gangs) told IRIN: “I feel sorry for the young ones coming through the street gangs now, because they don’t know what they are getting themselves into. But what can they do? To survive this life they feel like they must learn what it is to be a gangster, but all they are doing is creating problems for themselves.” 

The way forward

Poverty, disease, violence and sexual exploitation; the next generation is entering an age fraught with potential threats exacerbated by rapid urbanisation. 

As city populations grow faster than city infrastructures can adapt, young people are likely to see an alarming decrease in their livelihoods as their transition to adulthood is threatened by the weak socio-economic integration. 

The changing pattern of urbanisation raises serious concern for the growing number of young people who will live in tomorrow’s urban settings. Recent UN statistics forecast that by 2030, 60 percent of the world population will live in cities and as many as 60 percent of urban residents will be under 18. 

If trends continue, the plight of young people in the cities is likely to be one of the main challenges of the century. 

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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