Five lessons on confronting violence and systemic discrimination in policing in the Global South

A guest blog by the Governance & Justice Program, IDRC Canada


By Adrian Di Giovanni, Alejandra Vargas Garcia, Colleen Duggan, Emma Sanchez-Swaren, Holly Norris, Martha Mutisi, Megan Douglas, Navsharan Singh, Ramata Thioune (1)

UN Photo/Martine Perre

The murder of George Floyd has spurred mass protests and calls for reform in the United States and across the world to address police violence and systemic discrimination. The protests have led to some encouraging reforms, and recognition of systemic racism in security and other public institutions in the Global North is growing.

We see similar tragic stories of violence play out across the Global South, in the action-oriented, participatory research we support at Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC). In the contexts where our research partners live and work, the fault lines of exclusion and systemic discrimination run along racial, ethnic, religious, linguistic, socio-economic, and gender identities, and their intersections.

Findings from our research partners in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean have affirmed a basic message: creating safer spaces means working hand-in-hand with marginalized and vulnerable populations to address the root causes of insecurity, exclusion, and institutionalized discrimination. Drawing on their work, we offer five lessons on creating safer spaces in the face of systemic discrimination in policing.

1. Violence is a symptom of socio-economic challenges that can’t be solved by policing.

Evidence from across the world has shown that a complex web of factors drives violence in society. The Human Sciences Research Council in Cape Town, South Africa found that areas experiencing high levels of poverty combined with the lived experience of inequality are most susceptible to violence. In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Maputo, Mozambique, the organization Instituto Promundo encountered a “transfer” of violence between generations: children exposed to violence are more likely to become violent themselves. Further, traditional models of masculinity that legitimize violence are aggravated by poverty, social inequality, and aggression by state security forces. This highlights the need for psychological support in situations of cyclical violence. Restrictive gender roles, exclusion of vulnerable groups from public life, lack of accountability for institutions, and distrust in the rule of law are also notable drivers of violence.

2. Strong-handed approaches increase the vulnerability of marginalized people

Photocarioca /

Punitive security approaches that treat the symptoms of violence rather than address its underlying causes continue to be widespread. These approaches tend to be presented as quick-fix solutions, and pursued for reasons of political expediency despite evidence that militarized policing can have the opposite effect, stoking violence and worsening the suffering of vulnerable populations (Pearce, 34–5). Studies in urban centres cite “muscular state-led interventions” as contributing, over time, to an erosion of the public’s trust in security authorities, state institutions, and their perceived legitimacy. In cities such as Lagos, Nigeria, urban policies aimed at eliminating informal activities have essentially criminalized aspects of daily life in poor neighborhoods. Cities that have embraced more holistic interventions to address the symptoms of violence show promising results, including linking violence reduction to urban upgrading in South Africa and the provision of services and transportation design in Pakistan.

3. Policing needs to protect not threaten survivors of gender-based violence

Our partners’ research has shown that lack of training for front-line police, prevailing stigma, and gender discrimination are significant obstacles to seeking justice in cases of gender-based violence. When coming forward, survivors face risk of additional harms, including new acts of violence, at the hands of those entrusted with their protection. Emerging evidence from IDRC’s work on Central American migration has documented countless narratives of women and minors facing insecurity, including rape, at the hands of security forces in border make-shift camps. While examples demonstrate how policing structures often fail to provide security and justice for survivors of violence, our research partners have identified positive reforms co-developed with communities. In India, the Institute for Development and Communications supported community-based organizations and police to co-develop evidence-based action plans to improve responses to gender-based violence in Punjab State and Mumbai. The Majlis Legal Centre studied efforts to train police officers, especially women officers, and helped to develop standard operating procedures in Mumbai police stations for sexual violence and rape cases.

UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

LGBTQI people face distinct gender-based violence challenges, in the form of societal stigma associated with homophobia, combined with economic insecurity, as research in South Africa by the African Security Sector Network and in Colombia by Fundación Ideas para la Paz revealed. Research by the Universidad de Antioquia in Medellin, and the Observatorio de Seguridad found that participatory exchanges on experiences of violence (among women and LGBTQI people, respectively) offered potential to build safer spaces and feelings of empowerment to get involved in efforts to improve community safety.

4. Youth, mostly portrayed as the problem, need opportunities, safety, and belonging

Many youth experience violence in their daily lives and are often subjected to excessive policing and incarceration. Such responses fail to address their need for education, employment, and social inclusion. The Université Alassane Ouattara and the Université Félix Houphouët-Boigny in cities in Côte d’Ivoire highlighted that youth lacking much needed social supports can turn to gangs and criminal activity. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, cultural stigmas against poor uneducated youth further drive them to gangs, according to research by Université de Kinshasa. In Latin America, the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales in Costa Rica found that when communities fail to provide youth protection and a sense of belonging, they seek them out from criminal organizations like gangs. These youth indicate feeling trapped in increasingly hostile spaces, marked by stigma and never-ending cycles of violence by both criminal organizations and police responses. In Panama, the Fundación Jesus Luz de Oportunidades is generating promising results through educational training and psychosocial support for youth upon their release from prisons.

5. Community participation in public safety fosters trust and greater buy-in for violence reduction

The need to involve communities in developing solutions to violence and policing continues to be met with resistance from policymakers. “Police and soldiers cannot solve the crime and violence; they can assist in pausing it for a period of time, but it is going to take the community to come together to sustain the peace,” as a resident of Richmond, Jamaica summed it up, when participating in a study on violence reduction with the Institute of Criminal Justice and Security. In contrast, evidence from different parts of the world — Across Tanzania, the University of Dar es Salaam found that a community policing model dealt effectively with violence-related matters through the application of strategies based on trust, respect, and local customs. In India, ongoing research by Yugantar is engaging victimized communities and the police in security reform and pushing back against a legacy, dating back to colonial times, of subjecting hundreds of young, predominantly Muslim men to unjust profiling and surveillance. This range of efforts highlight the importance of community involvement to foster perceptions of safety, real declines in violent crime, and build trust and accountability in public safety responses.

Lessons for fostering safe and inclusive spaces

While no two communities are identical, similar needs exist across countries and regions to address the socio-economic challenges that contribute to violence. Narrow, strong-handed approaches are rarely if ever the solution. Violence and policing policies can become more inclusive by meeting the needs of survivors of gender-based violence, building opportunities for youth and partnering with communities.

These lessons point to the powerful role of research, that place community perspectives at the center, in finding alternative ways to create safe spaces. Our hope in presenting these lessons is to help bring attention to lived experiences in the Global South that could inform ongoing discussions around security reform and systemic discrimination in the Global North.

(1) A note on authorship: In compiling these lessons, we were conscious of a risk of detracting from current attention on anti-black racism in the United States and Canada, by raising a larger set of issues in contexts further afield. As a group of authors bringing together multiple national, ethnic, racial, and gender identities, we wish to support this global rallying cry against racism by highlighting evidence from different geographic contexts that supports the call for rethinking public security. We recognize nonetheless the privilege that comes as officers of a Canadian development funder in showcasing findings from our partners’ research and the experiences of populations from the Global South. Names listed alphabetically by first name.