Fear and Violence: The impact on youth in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

June 3, 2019

By Daniel Roland, Research Associate at PSSRU Kent

Quick, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the words “Rio de Janeiro”? Nobody would be surprised if you thought about carnival, beaches, Christ the Redeemer or the Sugar Loaf Mountain and its cable cars (the latter have become a lot safer since the late 1970s). Or maybe, if you have been to Rio, you might remember the vibrant cultural scene and how the cariocas, as Rio de Janeiro’s citizens are known, are a warm people, going out of their way to help you. But beneath the smiles and friendly faces, beyond the beautiful scenery and joyful everyday life that you may see in the beaches and parks, lies a reality that the cariocas often wish to forget. Rio de Janeiro State in the early 2000s was sadly competing to be the most dangerous State in Brazil, with a staggering rate above 50 people murdered per 100,000 inhabitants (i.e. homicide rate), according to a report (in Portuguese). For comparison, Venezuela had a similar homicide rate in 2016, although estimates vary. The capital of the State of Rio de Janeiro, also known as Rio de Janeiro, is historically less violent than the State. And it has improved remarkably since then, but its homicide rate is still four times higher than in developed countries. So nobody would blame you if your first thought about Rio de Janeiro was violence.

But what does violence has to do with health? Quite a lot actually. Back in 1996, the World Health Organization (WHO) placed violence on the international agenda as a public health concern with a resolution and many reports that followed. The obvious loss of life due to a homicide is clear, but further health issues caused by violence such as depression, alcohol abuse, anxiety and suicidal behaviour make the cost of violence much higher. Physical violence is not the only one to leave scars. For example, sexual violence is associated with long-term negative effects. And more recently, studies in socioemotional development and how violence plays a role from prenatal period to early childhood have started to explore a new pathway of harmful impacts of violence in human capital accumulation.

Funded by the University of Kent’s GCRF Partnership Fund, on the 9th and 10th of May, researchers gathered in the facilities of the Igarapé Institute to discuss how we can contribute to better, more efficient and cost-effective public policies that can alleviate some of the impacts of violence. Lead by three economists, yours truly Daniel Roland from the PSSRU-University of Kent, Luiz Scorzafave and Daniel Santos both from the University of São Paulo and LEPES think-tank, the workshop had the attendance of representatives from NGOs based in Rio de Janeiro. Empodera was the newest NGO in the table, but it has achieved outstanding results working with volunteers to offer help and support to vulnerable girls. They provided a perspective on gender issues surrounding youth and different types of violence and how sports and other group activities can become tools to socialise female youth in a safe and friendly way. Also using sports, Fight for Peace (which Prince Harry visited in 2012) is a well-known NGO that is present in 25 countries across four continents. Founded by a former amateur English boxer, Fight for Peace is helping each year over 1,600 children and adolescents to overcome the violent surroundings they live in and thrive despite many adversities. Their method of working with five pillars (sports, education, employability, social support and leadership training) was shown to be efficient and an interesting option for public policies. We also had representatives from the Public Ministry of Rio de Janeiro (Ministério Público do RJ) and from the Office for Education of Rio de Janeiro (Secretaria de Educação do RJ) that provided a perspective from government officials.

By the end of the workshop, the team felt refreshed and hopeful that this workshop was the first of many future meetings and the seed for several projects. As a result of our discussions, we first established a plan to monitor schools to identify the greatest violence related challenges that school directors and teachers face. Second, with the help of specialists and government officials from the areas of health, social service, education, psychology and economics, we aim to develop pilot interventions that can address the issues identified in the first stage. Simultaneously, we hope to develop a methodology capable of identifying and quantifying the risk of youth in schools getting involved with gangs and violent activities, or worse, committing acts of violence in schools. Third, implementing the pilot interventions and new methodology and measuring their effectiveness. There is certainly a long road ahead of us!

The workshop would not have been possible without the support of Igarapé Institute, which is led by Robert Muggah and Ilona Szabó. The event took place in the same week that Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, issued a controversial decree on gun control. Igarapé Institute, as a renowned think-tank specialised on gun violence and statistics, was highly sought during that week, which makes their support even more special. I am also deeply thankful to Luiz Scorzafave and Daniel Santos from the University of São Paulo for jointly coordinating the event.

All the views in this article are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of PSSRU, University of Kent or any other institution.