Prenatal Care and Eating Fish, Innovative Ways to Prevent Violence

February 8, 2017


Children play in an indigenous school


It is never too late – or too early – to end violence. A new World Bank study analyzes prevention programs from a life-cycle perspective.

Despite economic advances over the past decade in the Latin America and the Caribbean, the incidence of violence continues to rise. Whether triggered by drug trafficking and organized crime or armed robberies and kidnappings, insecurity has become a major obstacle to development.

Every year, there are an estimated 24 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants -- a statistic that the World Health Organization has already classified as an epidemic. Just 10 countries of the region have lower rates.

It has long been clear that no single formula or policy can resolve this situation. Hardline tactics, more jobs or better education cannot by themselves stem this menace; rather, what is needed is a combination of these strategies and much more, adapted to the reality of each community.

The recent World Bank study, Stop the Violence in Latin America: A Look at Prevention from Cradle to Adulthood compiles a variety of proven, innovative ways to address crime. These are:

IT IS NEVER TOO EARLY for prevention: A combination of biological and prenatal conditions can explain many antisocial behaviors. These include genetics, the intrauterine environment and birthweight.

A project in Elmira, New York, which was replicated in Memphis, Tennessee, showed that prenatal care and nurse visits to at-risk pregnant women or mothers of small children helped to improve behavior outcomes. Children whose mothers received visits for two years after their birth were less likely to run away from home, to be arrested (reduction of 53%), convicted (reduction of 63%) or to violate parole.

PREVENT VIOLENCE FROM RUNNING IN THE FAMILY: Family circumstances -- particularly the father’s criminal activity -- are one of the most reliable predictors of individuals’ violent behavior, more so than their income or employment situation.

Many early childhood development programs help children develop complacency and a conscience, two key personality characteristics for avoiding anti-social behavior. These programs are more effective in developing countries, where children receive less stimulation but are more amenable to these activities.

MORE TIME IN SCHOOL: Spending more time in school reduces rates of serious crimes against property committed by adolescents (between 14% and 28%, according to the study). When a youth lacks a structured or supervised environment, he or she is more likely to engage in anti-social behaviors.

In El Salvador, which has one of the highest crime rates in Latin America,  full-time schools give young people a chance to attend vocational workshops, practice sports and play music. The goal is to provide a controlled environment to prevent them from engaging in criminal activity.

(quality) EMPLOYMENT: Experiences in Brazil and Mexico indicate that employment quality is more important for violence prevention than is the employment situation as such.  Quality work opportunities for young adults (which guarantee stability, formality, progressive wage increases and improved skills) have a protective effect against crime and violence, particularly among youth who have been tempted to commit crimes or who are employed but also engage in criminal activity. By contrast, early, low-quality employment is a risk factor given its level of instability and informality.

A STREET LIGHT: Several studies from the United Kingdom and the United States have demonstrated that better public lighting reduces crime between 7% and 20%. Interestingly, this decrease occurs during both the day and at night. The evidence shows that public lighting boosts community pride and increases social control over what occurs in the neighborhood.

BANNING ALCOHOL SALES: In Diadema, Brazil, a large share of crimes occurred during the evening, on specific streets, and were directly linked to alcohol consumption .  In response, the city focused its crime prevention actions in critical areas, prohibited the sale of alcohol in bars after 11 p.m. and combined several social activities to strengthen social and human capital.  Three years later, the homicide rate has fallen by 45%, saving more than 100 lives every year.

EAT FISH: Early interventions with incarcerated youths in developing countries showed that improving nutrition lessens aggressive behavior, especially when youth are given diets rich in the essential fatty acids normally found in fish. Essential fatty acids, also found in seeds, dried fruits and olive oil, remedy deficiencies in the brain chemistry associated with impulsive behaviors.

SHOW AFFECTION: There is growing evidence from prisons and schools that hostile behavior improves through meditation. In Mexico, the  La Lleca Collective has worked to raise awareness of prisoners. It believes that personal development processes can begin by strengthening the human side through demonstrations of affection and solidarity. The Collective tries to show interns that other forms of interaction exist, such as non-violent communication and respectful dialogue.