Preventing youth violence in Central America

Programme description

Title: Regional programme: Preventing youth violence in Central America (PREVENIR)
Commissioned by: German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ)
Countries: Central America: Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua
Lead executing agency: General Secretariat of the Central American Integration System (SG-SICA)
Overall term: 2009 to 2018

Central America. Mobile phone repair course. © GIZ

Violence perpetrated by rival youth gangs, often collaborating with organised crime, has taken on alarming proportions in Central America. The region has the world's highest murder rates. The consequences of youth violence are making themselves felt socially, politically and economically. The World Bank puts the costs to the countries of Central America as a result of youth violence at eight per cent of the gross domestic product. The lack of safety has a significant detrimental impact on the quality of life and leads to sweeping generalisations being made about young people from socially disadvantaged groups as perpetrators of violence.

Youth violence can be attributed to a wide variety of factors. Male dominance (machismo), violence as a means of enforcing individual and collective goals, violence in the family setting and against women are culturally acceptable in some cases and are widespread. Long-drawn-out civil wars have reinforced the culture of violence in Central America. Against the backdrop of poverty and the absence of prospects and rights, many marginalised young people see crime, the economic activities of youth gangs and the drug trade as a chance to get ahead. In El Salvador alone, up to one million people are estimated to be financially dependent on the activities of these gangs.

In the countries involved in PREVENIR – El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua – youth violence prevention has not been sufficiently coordinated across the sectors and departments concerned to date.

Stakeholders in Central America have the instruments and skills to improve cooperation in the field of youth violence prevention across sectors and departments and hence help reduce youth violence.

Central America. Training on youth violence prevention for community staff. © GIZ

PREVENIR focuses on prevention measures for young people at a higher risk who have not yet become involved in violence or experienced violence (primary prevention). The programme takes a systemic approach towards youth violence prevention based on the socialisation model devised by the psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner. 'Significant others' play a key role in this model, in other words people who have direct contact with the children and young people and influence their behaviour, such as teachers, parents, direct neighbours and peers, but also local politicians and police officers. Their actions can open up opportunities for prosocial, non-violent and productive relationships or alternatively have a negative impact on young people's behaviour. This ecosystemic approach no longer focuses on young people as a problem and on changing their behaviour, as traditional models do. Instead, it targets the 'significant others' as mediators.

PREVENIR implements the ecosystemic approach in relation to the following three areas of action:

  1. Promoting cooperation between local communities, including community models of preventive youth work and community police work
  2. Promoting youth employment and the employability of socially disadvantaged young People
  3. Violence prevention in school and out-of-school education

The programme is being cofinanced by the Directorate-General for International Cooperation (DGIS, Netherlands) and Australian Aid.

PREVENIR has developed and successfully tested training courses with a practical focus for prevention work in the communities. The projects aim to enable local stakeholders to draw up and implement prevention plans jointly. In El Salvador and Honduras, nine teams of multipliers have been trained (164 people), and five more groups (196 people) are currently being trained in Guatemala and Nicaragua. As a result of this training, the multipliers have set up prevention councils in 17 communities in El Salvador and are assisting them in successfully implementing their prevention plans. A training course has been developed for community-based police work in order to integrate the police into the communities' prevention work more effectively. The police are using the training course, and cooperation between the police and the communities has improved.

In selected communities, a total of 18 youth employment plans have been drawn up for young people who have dropped out of the school system. Courses for young people have been adapted to market needs. The activities include career orientation courses, measures to enhance entrepreneurial skills and life skills, computer courses, courses on repairing mobile phones and bicycles, and training courses for cooks and oven builders. A total of 3,400 young people have undergone training.

'Miles de Manos', an educational approach to violence prevention in schools, was initially tested with positive results in pilot schools in each partner country. It began by training teachers, Ministry of Education staff and parents for the pilot measures. Visible physical violence between young people in schools was reduced by 20 per cent over a period of six months. Communication between teachers and students improved, and learning and behavioural problems were increasingly solved in a spirit of partnership. In 2014, 'Miles de Manos' was introduced in 200 schools and school networks with support from the ministries of education in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. In Nicaragua, three pilot schools have introduced the approach so far. Support committees in the countries are promoting the implementation and introduction of 'Miles de Manos' in further schools.

Central America. Training for teachers on 'Miles de Manos', the school violence prevention approach. © GIZ