One of the major challenges in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) today revolves around issues of youth violence. LAC is the only region globally that had an increasing trend in the number of homicides between 1995 and 2010, according to a UNODC Global Study on Homicides. LAC also has the second highest rate of youth violence in the world. In the LAC region, the dialogue around security and addressing youth violence is ongoing and it is clear that there is no straight forward answer. One of the prominent approaches considered is a multidisciplinary or multisectoral approach, understanding that no one sector (such as education or health) can fix the myriad of factors that can negatively impact youth and expose them to greater risks.
Places with high levels of inequality, poverty and insecurity often experience great levels of violence. In the midst of urban violence and poverty, what is the role of education and schools? There is no clear response here either. However, we do know that the most important and safe space for children and youth, after the home, is the school. In many communities throughout LAC, schools play a central role, serving as a communal gathering space; in some violent communities, schools have been left untouched and served as safe havens.
Evidence suggests that schools provide an opportunity to address some of the challenges children encounter in high poverty and violence affected communities. The importance of schooling in adverse circumstances is so important that education is one of the key pillars to consider during emergencies, violence or in chronic crises, in addition to food, water, health and shelter. Why? Because school creates a sense of normalcy in children and youth; it provides an opportunity for community members to participate in positive events; it offers a space for children and youth to learn about safety and security in their surroundings; and education opens future opportunities for youth. Through contextually appropriate initiatives, schools can provide safety, security and opportunity.
Schools can take various steps to support children and youth affected by urban violence. They may include:
- Conducting a school and community mapping exercise to ensure everyone understands the safe and dangerous areas in their surroundings. Often such an exercise may lead to surprising results. Answers regarding safety and high risk areas differ between adults, children and youth.
- Providing general support to the entire school population, since all students are affected by crime, violence and other factors in the school and community that can negatively affect them. Such support may include ensuring safety and security in school; increasing student engagement in school; and providing opportunities for art, music and sports activities in a safe space, where recreational spaces outside of schools may not exist
- Providing specific support (such as group counseling) or early interventions to those students experiencing greater difficulties, such as problems at home or school, crime or others adversities.
- Offering a referral service to those students most severely affected by the crime, violence and other problems they face and who may require assistance beyond the capacity of the school and its staff.
- Providing support to students’ caregivers, who are also affected by the violence in communities and may benefit from well-needed support or an opportunity to participate in school initiatives.
- Providing a space to build trust within the school community, in an environment where trust is limited.
- Partnering with community organizations, such as health centers or training programs, to offer additional activities for children and youth beyond the normal school hours, including offering activities at school during evenings and weekends. The Open Schools Program in Brazil, where the school offers activities on weekends, for example, has been attributed with helping to reduce criminal acts by 45.5% between 2003 and 2006.
A school immersed in a setting of urban poverty and violence often becomes more than a space for learning reading, writing and mathematics. It becomes the safe space; a space where the students can be children and young people can be young people. Creating such a space in schools requires effort and the commitment of teachers, school directors, other school staff, students and caregivers. In this process, it can make the difference between motivating a child to stay in school and become a resilient and productive community member and having a child participate in or become victim to urban violence.