School violence in South America has been a problem endemic to this region for decades. Rates of violence have been growing recently, however, because of a confluence of two factors: The countries of this region have been increasing the rate at which children enroll in school and the period of time for which they remain in the public education programs. In years past, the dropout rate was much higher in South America.
The roots of violence in schools in this region are attributed to the structure of this region’s society. Approximately 32% of the residents of South America live in poor urban communities. Often these metropolises are sprawling, unplanned cities in which tens of thousands of people live in substandard housing and are served only sporadically by municipal utilities like running water and electric power. Schools are not seen by the governments of this region as institutions through which to provide education as a right to their citizens, but rather as places to exert control and maintain class formation. A significant number of youth from the lowest economic class drop out of school before finishing their secondary level of education. Many of the males from this sector eventually join gangs and further contribute to the cycle of violence in their own communities. This trend can, in a large part, be explained by the sociological assertion that criminals tend to act in a rational manner. Because South American society offers little social mobility to those born into the poorest class, crime–rather than education–is seen as the most logical path for escaping poverty.
While most countries in South America have officially outlawed corporal punishment in schools, UNICEF reports that this practice remains common. Notably, children and teenagers in this region are exposed to an extraordinary amount of violence compared to their peers in Western society. Violence within the school walls consists of students abusing other students, students abusing teachers, and teachers abusing students. For example, in Argentina, 23% of students in one study reported that they bullied other students at least several times, while 10% stated that they physically attacked their classmates. Students in the same study volunteered that 8% bullied teachers, while an additional 3% attacked their instructors. In Brazil, the numbers are even more alarming: In a study of 12,000 students from 143 schools in six state capitals, 84% described their schools as violent, while 70% stated that they were victims of violence.
In addition to the significant numbers of young men who join gangs, many poverty-stricken school-aged youth are forced to live in the streets. There, they are subject to a wide array of abuses, ranging from crime to prostitution to drug addiction to murder. The problem of child murder is particularly dire in Brazil, a nation that accounts for more than half of South America’s total population. Thousands of young people die every year as a result of violent acts, including 45% of the adolescents whose lives end annually in Brazil. Some experts predict that based on current trends, 33,000 adolescents in Brazil will die violently in 2012. Colombia’s homicide rate is 84.4 children killed per 100,000 youths. On average, South America has a rate of 26 homicides per 100,000 youths–the third highest rate of any region in the world. To put this figure in perspective, the corresponding rate in the United States is 11 youth homicides per 100,000 population.
The issue of gangs is not a footnote in this situation. On the contrary, this problem is so immense that two of Brazil’s largest cities, Sao Paulo and Rio De Janeiro, have been overrun by gang violence. A sizable number of these gang members are “child soldiers” (as they are referred to by authorities), not dissimilar to the situation found in some areas of both Africa and Asia. In fact, in addition to being pressed into gangs, South American youth as young as nine and 10 years old are sometimes forced to bear arms for various rebel militias in places such as Peru and Colombia.
The children who fight in these conflicts and activities are not the only ones affected by this challenging situation. Six million of Colombia’s 17 million children are affected by the toll exacted by these war-like conditions. The emotional stress inflicted by the ongoing conflict is yet another factor that impinges on South American children’s ability to live the tranquil lives one might expect youths to enjoy.
In addition to the obvious challenges faced by this dysfunctional society, large swaths of the South American continent are governed by drug lords. There, public schools do not exist in adequate numbers, as the virtual warlords do not wish to see such institutions exist. This vacuum is being addressed on a limited basis by the U.S. Agency for International Aid’s (USAID) Alternative Development Program, which funds such infrastructure projects in foreign countries as part of the U.S. efforts to reengineer such problematic socioeconomic situations.
Another plague running rampant among portions of South America’s school-aged population is child prostitution. This crime varies greatly across the continent, with Brazil being identified as the most notorious center of child prostitution and trafficking. While many countries have laws forbidding such activities, child prostitution as well as sex tourism and associated exploitation have been identified as huge industries in South America. Peru’s Amazon region is one where this problem is especially common. Children are often led into this path through the enticement of being offered work. This lure often proves irresistible, as the widespread poverty found throughout South America creates a tremendous pressure on children to contribute to their household’s economic survival.
As numerous studies have shown, children who prematurely enter the workforce have a relatively high risk (compared to those who do not follow this path) of becoming delinquent, being involved in criminal activities, and dropping out of school. In addition, much higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse are found among the population of children who are working. The rate of alcoholism in this population has also been found to be greatly out of proportion to the general population. Among 14-year-olds that are working, the average rate of alcoholism has been found to be 30%. In secondary school, it is often found to exceed 50%. This pattern becomes all the more serious when one considers that studies demonstrate a significant number of those persons arrested for committing homicide were intoxicated either during the act or shortly before it.
Drug abuse among South American students is widespread, although the particular substance of choice varies from country to country. For example, ecstasy is used by many students in Colombia, but not those elsewhere in South America; the use of inhalants is popular among Brazilian students, but not among other South American students. Cocaine use is particularly high in Argentina, Colombia, and Brazil, but not in the rest of the continent. Methamphetamine use is prevalent in Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia, and Argentina, but is barely found in Peru, a country with a pattern of very low drug abuse overall. With regard to marijuana, its use among 14-year-olds in South America is relatively minor, though members of Uruguay’s general population increase their use of this drug by four times by the time schoolchildren outgrow their adolescent years.
The overall issue of crime and violence in South American schools is a complex one. Currently, although universal elementary and secondary education is officially available to all school-aged children in this area, attendance is not always possible or probable. Inflated enrollment rates are often reported, with the counts including students who are not in fact attending or who do not remain in school
for the full day of classes. In addition, many young people of school age who reside in urban slums or shantytowns are not visible in the census records and are ignored by the education establishment. This neglect makes them vulnerable to greater threats related to crime and violence.
- Buvinic, M., Morrison, A., & Shifter, M. (1999). Violence in Latin America and the Caribbean: A framework for action. Technical Study, Sustainable Development Department, Inter-American Development Bank. Retrieved March 10, 2011 from http://www.bvsde.paho.org/bvsacd/cd66/1073eng.pdf
- Cardoso, R., & Verner, D. (2006, December). School drop-out and push-out factors in Brazil: The role of early parenthood, child labor, and poverty. Discussion Paper No. 2515. Bonn, Germany: Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
- Magaly, S. (2006, July). Insecurity and violence as a new power relation in Latin America. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 606, 178-195.
- UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre: http://www.unicef-irc.org/datasets/data_sets_int.html
- UNICEF: Key Issues on Child Protection: http://www.unicef.org/lac/Key_info_on_Child_Protection(1).pdf