What it is: Severe suffering inflicted on many peoples of the world by social, political and economic systems both locally and globally.
What it means: Many societies are organised so that some (and often the majority) of the citizens are disadvantaged, trapped in poverty, or are exploited - those who work are virtually slaves. They lack access to resources, health care and education. They almost always have no political voice. Sometimes structural violence has developed out of a society's traditions, and the powerful are happy to keep it that way. Sometimes structural violence is the result of decisions by governments indifferent to the hardship and suffering of powerless people. Sometimes the roots of structural violence lie in ethnic or religious prejudice and discrimination: which can mean denying or destroying people's culture, language or environment. More often than not it's caused simply by a rich few exploiting the poor, often made to work in inhumane conditions for an insultingly low wage. Many global businesses have got wealthy that way. Structural violence can endure over generations, so that children are born into oppression and know nothing else. It is an appalling crime against humanity, and often a secret one, unrecognised by law and built into the way a society works. And of course it is often a cause of violent conflict. This may be continual outbreaks of armed violence, such as in Northern Ireland from the 1960s to the 1990s or in Algeria since 1992. It may be a massacre, like the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. It may be chronic violence in the urban areas of violent societies - of which America is one (it has the world's highest murder rate). Militarism inflicts structural violence when governments choose to spend huge sums on arms instead of on human needs: half the world's countries spend more on 'defence' than on health and education put together. War itself is often the visible and horrific result of less visible, but still horrific, social injustices. People working for peace understand that much more has to be done than reject war. Structural violence has to be abolished and the societies that inflict it have to be repaired. First, this means looking hard at what kind of society each of us tolerate, what kind of structural violence we may support without even realising that we do. Do our own local authority or government cause (or fail to prevent) social injustice? Are there people in our own community or country who are excluded or made 'invisible'? What can we do about it?
Think about it:
(1) During the colonisation of Africa, black Africans were treated as second-class citizens or even as less than human. When South Africa was created in 1910, racial segregation already existed there. It became state policy when 'apartheid' ('separateness') was introduced in 1948. Non-white South Africans were denied full citizenship rights. They couldn't vote, and were banned from many kinds of public places and institutions. Minority 'white supremacy' meant that over 80% of the population were kept apart, poor and uneducated . The system was structured to prevent non-white people from joining together to claim their human rights. The chief architect of apartheid was Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, Minister of Native Affairs in 1950 (he later became prime minister). He instructed such schools as there were to equip any pupil 'to meet the demands which the economic life of South Africa will impose on him. There is no place for the native in European society above the level of certain forms of labour. If the native in South Africa is being taught to expect he will live his adult life under a policy of equal rights, he is making a big mistake.' Opponents of apartheid eventually made their voices heard internationally, and it was officially ended with South Africa's first multi-racial elections in 1994. But a lot of time is needed for people to recover from its effects.
Do you know of any other communities or states which tolerate this kind of exclusion? Unlike many other examples of structural violence, apartheid was a policy openly declared - why might that have happened?
(2) By 2002 Brazil had possibly the most unequal distribution of wealth in the world. The richest 10% had been taking well over half the country's income. That, says an expert, reflects 'the normal working of the system, rather than its corruption'. A small number of powerful groups have controlled the land, the institutions, the businesses and the wealth of this vast country. Its land is divided between a mere 27,000 owners, who don't want things to change. Some are also caught up with the international drugs trade and organised crime. Most Brazilian workers have become slave labourers, often kept in bondage by debts which honour requires that they pay. Most of the security forces are run (and paid) by the land-owner power groups, for whom they have become virtually private armies. A United Nations report in 2003 told of many cases of torture, unfair trials and unlawful executions, and called for a report on Brazil's legal system. But the Supreme Court ordered the lower courts not to let UN inspectors in. Two men who gave witness reports to the UN were shot dead. But the workers have taken on the struggle for reform. The Movement for Landless Rural Workers (MST), whose leaders are regularly imprisoned, has kept up its campaign. The Workers Party (PT), led by Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a leader of the anti-globalisation movement , had a remarkable success: in 2002 Lula was elected President of Brazil.
From this short summary alone, work out some of the problems facing the president, and try to think of some answers. Look for current news about what is happening in Brazil.
(3) In the 1990s Israel's economy began to fail. Then the conflict with Palestinians intensified. The Israeli government spent more money on weapons, and on building a fortified barrier. It also spent more money on Jewish settlements illegally built on Palestinian territory. By 2003 Israel's financial problems were greater than ever. So the government introduced new 'austerity' measures. Thousands of teachers were sacked and thousands more government employees were expected to lose their jobs shortly or face early retirement. The number of unemployed who could claim benefits was cut. So were supplementary benefits for the very poor; maternity and family allowances; and unemployment benefit. Immigrant workers (labouring up to 14 hours a day, 7 days a week, for a tiny wage) were forcibly expelled and young unemployed Israelis were expected to replace them. Health and education budgets were slashed, and housing loans reduced. Retirement age was now raised to 67, to reduce pension payments (frozen, anyway, until 2006). It was reported that 400,000 Israeli families couldn't provide their children with adequate food. There was some public protest, but not much: though many people opposed the new anti-social measures, they still supported the government, because of the continuing war with Palestinians.
It's generally agreed that the first duty of a state is to the welfare and safety of its citizens. Yet it is almost always governments, not the people, that decide to embark on war. That includes democratic governments. What might the citizens of a democratic country (or community, or club) do to influence the leaders they elect? Or must they accept any form of structural violence the government inflicts, at least until the next elections? How can citizens speak out against the way governments spend money - money that should be used to meet the people's needs - on militarism and war?