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Friday, March 26, 2021

Preventing violence in informal settlements during COVID-19

Written by Kroc School


Authored by Zander Willoughby, +Peace Program Manager, Peace in Our Cities Co-Facilitator

Peace in Our Cities is an initiative co-facilitated by Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive SocietiesImpact:Peace, and +Peace, launched in September 2019. It gathers 18 cities and more than two dozen partner organizations. It acts as a platform to: 1) amplify knowledge of the scale of the urban violence problem and the promise of evidence-based solutions to save lives and heal communities, 2) support city leaders and partner organizations in efforts to reduce the most serious forms of violence in their cities, and 3) advance innovative and evidence-based policies for violence prevention and reduction in an urban context. 

Peace in Our Cities co-facilitator Impact:Peace is currently undertaking research examining the impact of COVID-19 on areas of violence in cities around the world. The six-part research agenda, conducted as part of the FCDO-funded project, ‘Peace in Our Cities in a Time of Pandemic,’ will be accompanied by this blog series in an effort to distribute experiences, best-practices, knowledge, and the most pressing questions faced by Peace in Our Cities members. Interested in joining Peace in Our Cities? Get in touch by emailing team@peaceinourcities.org and share your insights and questions on social media by following #PeaceInOurCities on Twitter.

Globally, 1 billion people are living in informal settlements, also referred to as slums. This is estimated to increase to 3 billion by 2050. Densely packed living conditions, lack of sanitation, and difficulty accessing city services - informal settlements have seen extreme risk of COVID spread. Many of these same factors, exacerbated by the pandemic, have increased risk factors that lead to violence in informal settlements.

The Peace in Our Cities (PiOC) network recently held a virtual discussion on practical steps cities can take to prevent violence in informal settlements based on Mark Weston’s work in the first of a series of six evidence briefs covering PiOC violence priority areas during the context of COVID-19. In the research brief, Weston lays out five main areas where cities can take action to prevent violence in informal settlements: increased access to food, alternatives for young people, public health interventions, policing interventions, and justice sector reform. Of course, interventions are highly contextual and culturally specific and must be co-designed with local communities. To make meaningful progress towards halving urban violence by 2030, PiOC knows that peacebuilders, violence prevention practitioners, and cities must take concrete steps today. 

To prevent violence in informal settlements, especially during the pandemic, cities should…

...Increase access to food in informal settlements. The World Food Programme warned the food insecurity would double in 2020 unless drastic action was taken to combat food insecurity. Food insecurity pushes individuals and communities into desperate situations, exacerbating the risk of violence. In Lagos, Nigeria, 78% of people surveyed in 30 informal settlements said they have been unable to meet basic needs since the pandemic hit. To increase food access in informal settlements, cities can, and should, look to connect area farms with local farms, support urban farming opportunities, and provide direct support to individuals through food handouts or cash transfers. Notably, Cash transfer programs have already been successful in India, Brazil, Pakistan, and elsewhere. 

Provide and support alternatives for young people. Youth make up a large portion of the population of informal settlements around the world. Providing alternatives, economic and social, for young people living in informal settlements is a smart investment in preventing violence and building peace and resilience in informal settlements. Medellín, Colombia, which saw a 95% homicide rate decline, can credit much of its violence prevention success to meaningfully including youth in the design and implementation of violence programming. Peace in Our Cities member, Fight for Peace, uses a peer training model in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil for training youth in boxing and martial arts as well as providing career advice in—a model that has also been used in Kano, Nigeria by Peace Initiative Network and elsewhere. A key to leaning on youth as active peacebuilders to prevent violence in informal settlements is removing the incentives to engage in violence.

...Support public health interventions. Public health interventions have a lot to offer when it comes to preventing violence in informal settlements. Many first think of the Cure Violence model, which takes an epidemiologic approach to violence and its community spread. Cure Violence uses peer trainers to build peace and prevent violence through the same community transmission means through which violence spreads in the first place. 

The WHO INSPIRE program lays out seven public health strategies for ending violence against children. The knock-on effects of gender-based violence lead to other types of violence, especially the cycles of violence spurred on by violence against children. The Soul City program in South Africa has been especially notable for countering gender-based violence. Cities should be expanding social services and access to trauma healing. Mental health psycho-social support for victims and perpetrators of violence is imperative for preventing future violence, breaking cycles of violence, and building resiliency post-violence. 

...Rethink policing interventions. As we saw in the cases of the protests in support of Black lives in the US and around the world as well as the End SARS protests in Nigeria, heavy-handed police interventions decrease community feelings of insecurity rather than reducing violence. Heavy-handed policing increases mistrust and marginalization, key drivers of violence and extremism in informal settlements. Instead of relying on force, coercion, and intimidation, effective policing models build relationships and work with community organizations, citizens, and community leaders to build peaceful communities. By resolving conflicts, rehabilitating and reintegrating past offenders, upgrading the physical environment, and rethinking old laws and ways of doing things, cities can make meaningful progress towards reducing violence in informal settlements by resisting the push towards policing models that exacerbate and perpetuate cycles of violence.

...Reform justice sector access. For those living in informal settlements, the justice system is difficult to access, navigate, and depend on. Physically and symbolically, courts are often far away from informal settlements. Cities worldwide have taken concrete steps to make justice sectors more accessible to informal settlements by making paralegals—who, along with community law advisors have much higher community legitimacy than lawyers—essential services during COVID-19 lockdowns and shifting from punitive policing to mediation and rehabilitation. By increasingly leveraging alternative dispute resolution in courts, supporting diversionary programs (drug rehabilitation, therapy, etc.), investing in alternatives to violence, and heavily investing in community mediation services, cities can reform justice sectors to increase efficacy, efficiency, and access for people living in informal settlements in order to reduce violence and build peaceful, just, and inclusive societies. 

During the virtual exchange, PiOC members shared their own experiences with violence in informal settlements durng the COVID-19 pandemic. Several cities raised the issue of a lack of global data—without knowing the true rates of COVID-19 in informal settlements due to a lack of investment and continuity, it can be hard for cities to know the true scale and spread of the virus. In Calí and Medellin in Colombia, city officials are early developers of strategies that look holistically at city-wide issues. Weston and PiOC members stressed that these reviews must include those living in informal settlements, and that city-wide public health and violence reduction strategies must be extended to these areas.

Looking ahead, PiOC members highlighted how work on prevention, food insecurity, and public health in slums will be critical to recovery after COVID-19, and that these interventions must be integrated into long-term strategies. Several PiOC members emphasized that there is often poor enforcement of laws and programs designed to help those in informal settlements, and the negative impact this has on current and future programming. 

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Kroc School

Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies' mission is to equip and empower innovative changemakers to shape more peaceful and just societies.

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