The face of violence

Just imagine it’s you. You’ve known since you were nine that your life has a value to society of absolutely zero. You could be shot down in the street at any moment, perhaps by a police officer. There won’t be an investigation, much less punishment for the killer. Nothing will happen. You know this with certainty because you saw your brother shot right in front of you. You want revenge.

Imagine also that you don’t have enough to eat because your father is unemployed and your mother too. They send you out to beg or to sell candy. Think, too, that when you try to get a job when you’re 15 or 16 you won’t find one because there are no jobs for people like you. So you have no money, not enough food, no work, you saw your brother killed and you know your life has no value for society. Under such conditions, it is easy to understand why a young person would get involved with crime and with armed violence.

Indeed, at this very moment thousands of young people like this throughout the world are carrying firearms, perhaps aiming them at someone. Yet they are neither soldiers at war nor police. They are members of gangs, drug factions and other organized criminal groups. They commit crimes, they kill, and above all they die. For the majority of them the choice of this path seems voluntary and conscious.

English anthropologist Luke Dowdney – 32 years old and a specialist in children and youth in organized armed violence – is trying to understand the root causes that lead young men down this path. In Rio de Janeiro alone – the city where Dowdney has lived and worked for almost 10 years – the homicide rate was 62.8 per 100,000 habitants for the general population in 2002. For youths between 15 and 24 the rate was more than twice as high: 145.5 per 100,000 habitants. That same year a total of 14,451 young people in this age group were killed with firearms in Brazil.

Dowdney points out that the great majority of youth in favelas (the hillside slums where Rio’s low-income population is concentrated) do not opt for a violent life in spite of the great injustices they have suffered. ‘They find a way to resist, whether through family, through friends, through school, by being part of a football team or some other sport: by having positive role models as opposed to the armed men that patrol the streets.’

For those youths lacking such resilience, an activity such as drug trafficking can seem the best alternative. ‘You have the chance to belong to a group that has status and is recognized in the community as the strong dominant group. Instead of being “nobody”, you become a “somebody”. Your life may still not have value to society but now at least you have 20 guys with machine guns at your side. If someone wants to kill you they will have to take on the whole group. Besides which, you now have access to consumer goods since drug dealing is highly lucrative.’

Dowdney’s research has looked at organized armed violence amongst youth in different countries and cultures on five continents. In an earlier study Dowdney compared children and adolescents employed by the drug trade in Rio to child soldiers in Africa and elsewhere. The similarities were striking: the presence of a hierarchical command structure; the importance of dominating a certain territory; the use of war-grade weapons like AK-47s; the risk of being killed; and the use of corporal punishment, torture, even death as a punishment for breaking group rules. ‘Based on our research we believe that the youths who choose violence are those who do not see any better options, who don’t have positive influences.’

Surprising choices

Before becoming an anthropologist, the young Dowdney chose boxing as a sport. For eight years he dedicated himself to training and fighting, won a university championship and even lived in Japan as an amateur pugilist. ‘I had a lot of aggression and I couldn’t get it out,’ explains Luke, who suffered verbal aggression and beatings at school as a young adolescent. He believes that aggression is natural in young men. ‘There is something biological linked to testosterone besides the growth of muscles: the discovery of physical force.’ Through boxing he learned that sport is an excellent way to channel aggression, and transform it into something positive through discipline and winning of status by one’s own merit. This personal choice, he would discover later, would guide his professional life.

Since 2001 Dowdney has co-ordinated the ‘Fight for Peace’ project, which uses boxing to attract youths who are involved, or at risk of becoming involved, in crime. ‘Those kids are interested in boxing for the same reason that I was. They want to defend themselves because they are suffering some type of abuse.’ Once they join the programme they are encouraged to return to school and to participate in citizenship classes. They receive help in entering the job market, psychological support and family counselling. They take field trips and in cases of extreme need they receive basic foodstuffs.

‘Boxing alone is not the answer. But our strategy is to link that physical activity – which is good for releasing aggression in a safe place – with other opportunities. It gives them peer recognition and that in turn can help boost their social status. Being part of the boxing academy is a way to protect themselves from the violence that is all around them in the community. When a young guy wears a shirt from the Fight for Peace project, the police and the drug traffickers leave him alone. And we encourage more education because that gives a greater chance of future employment. Self-esteem is fundamental. How can you value yourself in a society that places no value on you? There has to be a very profound change in the way a youth sees himself and the way he sees the world.’

For those who condemn boxing as a violent sport Dowdney has a ready answer: ‘Poverty is violence. A minimum wage of less than $100 dollars per month is violence.’

Dowdney’s dream is that society will begin to demand policies that promote the inclusion of these youths, not merely their oppression. Only when other, better options are available to them will it be possible to say that their choice of violence is truly voluntary and conscious.

Mayra Jucá is a journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. Her article was translated by Benjamin Lessing.

New Internationalist issue 381 magazine cover This article is from the August 2005 issue of New Internationalist.
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