Young, male, urban, and violent
bing potrait

Crime is increasing in most of the developing world’s cities. With the rapid growth in the numbers of young people, youth crime in particular has increased, and has become increasingly violent.(2) Crime rates have also risen dramatically in countries in transition, where in many cases juvenile crime levels have increased by more than 30 per cent since 1995.(3)

Juvenile delinquency is largely a group phenomenon(4) and youth gang violence has become pervasive in many cities, particularly in Latin America and southern Africa.(5) Most youth gangs are dominated by young men, but young women have increasingly become members too.(6)

Long periods of unemployment, dropping out of school or marginalisation are recurring causes of delinquency in urban youth.(7) Poverty and inequality is also linked with violence and crime. Urban violence is often connected with alcohol and drug abuse.(8)

Studies have also found that rapid urban growth, in combination with economic crisis and weak institutions, contributes to youth violence and crime.(9) Escalating demand and shortage of resources for urban services, law enforcement and violence prevention programmes have overwhelmed urban management.(10)

Excluded and marginalized young men like Freddy join gangs like the Maras to get a sense of identity, inclusion, protection and solidarity. Gang membership provides status or prestige among their peers and offers young boys a way to become economically and socially self-sufficient. (11) Young people who feel marginalized or stigmatized, and who have been socially, politically or economically excluded, may resort to violence as a way to rebel against authority. Gangs may coerce young men who live in areas of high gang activity into active or passive participation.(12)

The increase in crime and violence has contributed to a general feeling of insecurity, especially among the urban poor.(13) They feel abandoned and powerless against shocking crime and the increase of minor acts of delinquency or vandalism. A general feeling of uncomprehending fear can create a climate that may threaten the democratic
foundation of a community or society.(14) The perception of insecurity has resulted in the abandonment of certain neighbourhoods, the stigmatisation of districts or communities, and the withdrawal or the refusal to invest in some cities.(15) More positively, however, the perception of insecurity has also led to the development of forms of self-defence and neighbourhood protection and new social practices.

Crime and insecurity affect all social classes; but the poor in particular lack the means to defend themselves. Vulnerability to urban violence erodes the social capital of the poor, and breaks down their socio-cultural bonds, thwarting social mobility, especially for young people.(16)

Over the past decade, UN-HABITAT has been working to tackle urban violence in Africa
through its Safer Cities Programme, launched at the request of African mayors. The programme focuses on building capacities at the city level to address urban insecurity and create a culture of prevention.(17) For instance UN-HABITAT, in collaboration with the city of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, has developed a local crime prevention strategy, promoting a culture of adherence to law; reducing unemployment among at-risk youth; helping urban residents to develop to their own strategies to fight crime; community oriented policing; and re-establishing ward tribunals to expedite law and by-law enforcement and trial of minor offences. Sensitisation and awareness campaigns have been conducted to mobilise local partners and encourage civil society participation in violence reduction.(18)

To prevent, reduce and eliminate urban youth violence and crime, governments, including local authorities, should promote prevention through social development. They can help communities deal with the underlying factors, including the marginalization, social inequalities, discrimination, lack of opportunities, and hopelessness that afflict young people. The justice system should offer young offenders the possibility of restorative justice, rehabilitation and reintegration.

Social investments in young people, particularly in education, employment and health, as well as conflict resolution and leadership skills, can help the young and vulnerable develop positive identities and a sense of belonging to their communities. It can go a long way in dealing with issues of violence among them.