The 20th century has turned out to be one of the most violent periods of conflict in human history. An estimated 190 million people lost their lives directly or indirectly … over half noncombatant civilians and millions of injured and disabled added to the terrible toll.
Aside from the communal violence of conflict, there is the less visible but widespread violence of everyday. No country, no city, no community is immune. It particularly strikes the most vulnerable – children, young people, women and the elderly. Violence against women is pervasive, regardless of income, religion, or culture. Violence by partners accounts for 70% of female murder victims in Canada, Australia, Israel and the US.
The traditional approach to violence is focused on the individual, offering therapy after the fact or preventively, trying to recognize the factors leading to violence or attempts at suicide. This approach is necessary and important.
However, the World Health Organization examines the problem from a holistic perspective, including cultural and social causes. Studying and recording the fallout from different kinds of violence, a 2000 WHO report presents it as a major public health issue.To our surprise, in 2002, half of the 1.6 million deaths from violence were suicides. Nearly one-third were homicides, and about one-fifth were casualties of armed conflict.
This report examined the extent, health and economic consequence of violence and injuries. In addition to death and disability, violence contributes to a variety of health problems, including depression, alcohol, substance abuse, sleeping disorders, HIV/AIDS, infections and much more. The resulting health care costs can be enormous, including legal costs, absenteeism from work and lost productivity. An example from a US 1992 study found the yearly cost of treating gunshot wounds alone to be $126 billion.
Outside of organized conflict, violent behavior is of two kinds – self-directed, as in suicide, and outwardly directed, as in homicide. The highest homicide rates are among males aged 15-29 years, declining with age, and three times the rate of females. Suicide rates increase with age, with the highest rate being men 60 years or older, more than double the rate of women of the same age. Rates of violent death vary according to country and income levels, with low to middle income more than twice that of high income countries.There is, however, wide geographical variations. Africa and the Americas are much higher in homicide, nearly three times greater than suicide, while in the southeast and European regions, suicide rates are more than double the homicide rates. There are also wide variations within countries between urban and rural, between rich and poor communities, and between different racial and ethnic groups.
Clearly, cultural and social factors play an important role. Even if a tendency to violence is basic in human nature, our understanding of triggers and underlying causes can help through public policies and interventions.
The problem of collective violence has been studied by the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflicts. It has identified a number of factors that bring states into risk of violent conflict.
1. Unequal access to power. This is especially severe when power stems from ethnic and religious identity, and when repressive leadership threatens human rights.
2. Social inequality marked by grossly unequal distribution of access to basic resources. Hate ideoplogies also play a role.
3. Control of a single group of natural resources, the”crown jewels” of a country, such as oil, timber, gems, and drugs.
4. Rapid demographic change that outstrips the capacity of a state to provide essential services and job opportunities.
Surely this study both explains and predicts many civil wars. The UN has agreed on a Peace Commission to anticipate and respond to those countries who are on the verge of reverting or in danger of beginning a civil war.
WHO is currently in the final stages of a massive study of violence against children, scheduled to appear with recommendations for 2006.The unique feature of this report is that children have been participating actively in the study, through consultation with Save The Children, through studies of institutions with children in detention, studies of what happens to children in war, and the role of children in armed conflict.
WHO has organized a global campaign for violence prevention.
Thinking about all this material has reinforced our belief that societies which are more equitable and have less ethnic, racial and religious tension can reduce violence and show dramatic improvements in health. A humane society can help people to flourish. The facts are in tune with the vision of humanism.
– Phyllis Ehrenfeld, AEU’s National Service Conference Representative to the UN
Sylvain Ehrenfeld, IHEU representative to the UN