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Civic culture is key to reduce violence, study finds

IDB-sponsored study explores how changes in civic culture are needed to achieve long-term success in mitigating violence

Any successful strategy to prevent violence should include measures to recognize and change behaviors prompted by beliefs, emotions and cultural factors, according to a new study sponsored by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).

Image removed.It is not enough to increase police capacity, reduce socioeconomic inequalities or amend laws to achieve deep changes in the safety of Latin American cities the study says. “Antipodes of Violence” examines civic culture as a way to transform harmful behaviors that affect the lives and safety of other citizens, to help cut the high murder rates and personal injuries in Latin America and the Caribbean.

According to the study, culture may help explain, interpret and regulate the behaviors of individuals. In the study culture is defined as the universe of social norms, attitudes, beliefs and habits shared by individuals in a social group, in which the goal is living in a community without violence.

The Civic Culture Survey was carried out in Latin American cities such as Belo Horizonte, Mexico City, Quito, La Paz, Bogotá, Medellín and Caracas. It analyzed safety and socioeconomic data, and explored the role of beliefs and attitudes on violence and insecurity.

"People's behaviors have a cultural basis that governments can help change with the aim of improving peaceful coexistence and security," says Efraín Sánchez, researcher, sociologist and co-author of the study. “Harmony or disharmony among law, morality, and culture often determines the attitudes of people before the law, and lie at the root of legal or illegal behaviors. When a society or social group approves illegal behavior and disapproves of legal behavior, the law naturally loses authority as a regulatory system, and the likelihood of committing illegal acts increases."

Cultural factors in violence in Latin America

In the surveyed cities, interpersonal violence involving fights, revenge, and sex crimes result in more deaths than is generally assumed. In fact, these causes for deaths outrank violence resulting from sociopolitical factors and from economic violence, such as robberies and burglaries.

Compared with other regions, Latin America has a higher rate of homicides committed by people between the ages of 16 and 25, with a total rate of 36.4 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. By comparison, the rate for Africa for this demographic is 17.6 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants.

In Belo Horizonte, between 2004 and 2009, 92 percent of homicide victims were male. In 2009, the percentage of male homicide victims in Quito was 87 percent, in Bogotá, 90 percent, and in La Paz, 65 percent.

Although young people generally enter the world of crime because of economic problems or lack of opportunities, the study’s authors argue that the root cause is cultural. For instance, youths may feel the need for social recognition and to express machismo.

Among young people, 74 percent use self-defense as their justification for using violence, 44 percent cite the need to help their families, and 41 percent to defend their properties or possessions. Although the frequency of the response "to obtain economic benefits" was given by a relatively high 37 percent of respondents, it was not the direct or the strongest justification.

For these reasons, increasing penalties would not attack the underlying problem, since punishing individuals who do not feel guilt or shame for their criminal actions may be useless in preventing recidivism, the study says.

However, it is possible to modify culturally instilled traits and collective beliefs that nurture violent behavior.

These same ideas were set forth by former Bogotá mayor Antanas Mockus in the technical study "Civic culture: the anti-violence program in Santa Fe de Bogotá, Colombia, 1995–1997," which was published by the IDB in 2001. "The disconnect among the three systems that regulate human behavior is expressed in actions that are often illegal,” writes Mockus, “but which are morally and culturally approved, or morally inacceptable but tolerated or accepted culturally. Similarly, some legal obligations are not recognized as moral obligations, or lack cultural approval in certain social environments."

An example of a program cited in Antipodes of Violence that is helping to change civic culture is “Because Nothing Justifies Mistreatment,” which is being carried out in Barrancabermeja in the Colombian department of Santander.

The program began with an analysis that indicated that domestic violence had become a major cause of homicide in the city. It addressed the problem by carrying out actions to educate, inform, and demonstrate solidarity with the public on this issue. Noting that jealousy is a main trigger of violent behavior in family dynamics, the program created a telephone hotline that targets affected men and women and their family members, provides tools to relieve, contain and emotionally support partners who may be experiencing difficulties, among other tools.

According to figures from the National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences, between April 2009 and March 2010, there were 1,127 recorded cases of domestic violence injuries in the city. Following the start of the program, cases dropped to 717, a 36 percent reduction.

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