How can we prevent violence?

How can we prevent violence? – Understand

Learn about violence prevention in a three module online course. Click here

Safety is a human right

In societies marked by high levels of violence and crime, such as in South Africa, people invest in anything that makes them feel more secure, from burglar bars and panic buttons to high concrete walls and electric fences.

Governments tend to take a hard-line approach, putting more police on the streets and toughening punishments for offenders. However, clamping down on violence and crime affects only its symptoms; focusing on security alone fails to address the causes of violence.

Rather, what is needed is a change of emphasis from security to safety. Security means protection against a known or perceived threat, while safety means to live without that threat or fear.

To create a society where everyone feels safe requires an understanding of safety as a human right and a public good that needs to be protected. The way to achieve this is through a commitment to preventing violence and crime by addressing its root causes.


What makes people violent? A look at the ecological model

The ecological model

"The ecological model highlights the multiple causes of violence and the interaction of risk factors operating within the family and broader community, social, cultural and economic contexts." (WHO World Report on Violence and Health, 2002)

There is no single reason that explains why people become violent. Social research has shown that violent behaviour in people is influenced by a complex interaction of many factors.

In order to help explain the complex phenomenon of violent behaviour, the World Health Organisation (WHO) uses the ecological model, as seen below. The model differentiates between four levels - individual, relationship, community and society – and factors specific for each level which influences and affects people’s behaviour. 

Four levels of the ecological model – adapted from WHO World Report on Violence and Health, 2002

Each of these levels presents certain risk and protective factors, producing mutually reinforcing factors of influence over an individual.

Therefore, the model provides a helpful orientation for the planning of violence prevention measures because it considers the interplay of many factors contributing to violent behaviour, as well as the influence of the environment people live in. It also highlights the importance of the co-ordinated action required on multiple levels in order to prevent violence.


Someone with an aggressive disposition (risk factor on the individual level) is more likely to take a violent stance if he or she has previously experienced violence as a means of conflict resolution at home (risk factor on the relationship level). Likewise, someone living in an urban district with high levels of unemployment and crime, and a lack of leisure activities (risk factors on the community level) is more likely to adopt violent behaviour than with someone who grows up in peaceful surroundings, with more varied and better opportunities.


Risk and Protective Factors

Understanding and considering risk factors and protective factors is crucial in the prevention of crime and violence, as it can be assumed that the prevention violence can be achieved through a reduction of risk factors and a strengthening of protective factors. 

Risk factors

Risk factors are "characteristics, variables, or hazards that, if present for a given individual, make it more likely that this individual, rather than someone selected from the general population, will develop a disorder." The word ‘disorder’ here refers to a tendency toward certain behaviour, such as violence.

The presence of risk factors increases the likelihood of an individual being involved in criminal and violent activity - the more risk factors a person is exposed to at different levels, the higher the probability.

It is important to note that risk factors, which appear at every level of the ecological model, do not cause violence - they give an indication of the likelihood of violent behaviour, however many people with multiple risk factors don’t resort to criminal or violent behaviour. For example, poverty is a risk factor, however most people living in poverty do not resort to violence. All it means is that they are more vulnerable to violence.

Protective factors

"Protective factors are those factors that mediate or moderate the effect of exposure to risk factors, resulting in reduced incidence of problem behaviour."

At the other end of the spectrum are protective factors, which provide a buffer between the presence of risk factors and adoption of delinquent behaviour, thus decreasing the probability that a person will engage in or be victim of violent behaviour. For example, a child growing up in a warm and caring family environment is less likely to resort to violence him- or herself than a child who experiences violence at home.

Protective factors help promote resilience in the face of adversity, and resilient people, or communities, are those who manage to abstain from involvement in crime and violence, despite exposure to risk factors.

Resilience and the impact of protective factors is a growing area of interest and research, producing scientific findings to suggest that the presence of just a few protective factors can minimise the impact of risk factors. Like the risk factors, protective factors can also be listed according to the levels of the ecological model. 


At the individual level, factors of biological disposition and personal development are identified.

  • Impulsiveness
  • Aggression
  • Experience of abuse & violence
  • Neglect & rejection
  • Lack of self-confidence
  • Learning difficulties
  • Tolerance of violence & deviant behaviour
  • Good self-confidence & self-esteem
  • A sense of norms & values
  • Good performance at school
  • A school certificate
  • Good self-expression & communication skills
  • An ability to discuss problems & resolve conflict

At the relationship level, factors deriving from close personal relationships (such as with family, friends and peer groups) are identified



  • Insufficient supervision & guidance by parents
  • Weak bond between parents & child
  • Low education level of parents
  • Low socio-economic status
  • Drug use & criminals in the peer group
  • Exposure to high levels of family violence & conflict
  • Harsh & inconsistent parenting practices
  • Young parents
  • Large family size
  • Loving & respectful interactions within the family
  • Support for good school performance on the part of parents
  • Parental supervision
  • Relationships & ties to adults outside the family
  • Positive role models
  • Reliable & stable friendships

At the community level, factors deriving from the immediate social environment (such as school, neighbourhood or workplace, where social relations are formed) are identified.

  • Existence of youth gangs
  • Low social integration
  • Lack of leisure activities
  • Insufficient infrastructure
  • High crime rate & easy availability of weapons
  • Drug consumption & dealing
  • Safe open spaces for people to use
  • Positive influence of social workers
  • Functioning social networks in the community
  • Opportunities for participation in school & at community level
  • A sense of belonging to, & identification with, one’s community
  • Availability of social services

At the society level, overarching factors affecting the whole of society, which contribute to encouraging or inhibiting a creating a climate of violence are identified.

  • High income disparities, high rates of poverty 
  • Lack of good governance
  • Insufficient social security
  • Rapid urbanisation and migration
  • Lack of, or difficult access to, basic services
  • Culture of violence: norms and values that accept, normalise or even glorify violence
  • A functioning social security system
  • A national strategy for comprehensive violence prevention and functioning institutions for its implementation
  • Social policies promoting and protecting the rights of children and the youth
  • Solidarity within society
  • A functioning law enforcement

As the different levels of the ecological model suggest, there is no single cause for violence and crime, but rather a multitude of risk factors influence and catalyse violent behaviour in people.

Reducing these risk factors and strengthening protective factors helps prevent crime by addressing its root causes. Therefore, both the reduction of risk factors and the building of protective factors, on all levels, needs to be prioritised as an effective violence prevention approach.


Coordinating efforts: The systemic approach

Due to the complex nature of violence, planning of prevention strategies requires a specific, systematic approach when measuring and analysing the problems, causes and risk factors associated with violence.

Such a systemic approach to violence and crime prevention considers perpetrators and their victims as part of a social system. Within this system diverse interactions and interdependencies exist between the different parts of the system and its actors, across different levels.

These social interactions have direct and indirect effects on the people living within the system. Understanding and addressing these effects that promote violent behaviour (i.e. the risk factors) plays a crucial role in planning and implementing violence-prevention measures.

This means that sustainable responses to violence and crime cannot be achieved overnight or by one actor alone. Prevention is most effective if co-ordinated long-term efforts are made by actors across a wide range of sectors – social workers, teachers, police, politicians, the private sector, academia and civil society organisations, just to name a few.

The systemic approach encourages networking and cross-sectoral co-operation among all of these actors, channelling their actions towards the common goal of a safer South Africa for all its citizens.

This approach shifts the perspective from the individual as the “evil” perpetrator to the individual exposed to risk factors who is in need of support, so that he or she can acquire positive values and social skills, and develop a personality resistant to violence and crime.

When developing prevention strategies, it is also important to keep in mind that potential victims and perpetrators are constantly developing over the course of their life.

While we know what the risk and protective factors are for crime and violence, it is important to take note of when in a person’s lifetime they emerge, and to develop interventions that tackle these risk factors and support protective factors at these crucial moments, in an age appropriate way. 


Levels and types of violence and crime prevention

Strategies for the prevention of violence and crime need to operate at different levels of the ecological model to sustainably reduce risk factors that promote violence or to strengthen protective factors that help prevent it. Such strategies should aim to discourage the emergence of violence, while also to confronting existing violence.

Measures and activities planned and implemented within prevention strategies can be categorised in a number of different ways.

International organisations such as the WHO, the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme and UN-Habitat (the United Nations Human Settlements Programme) generally categorise their measures according to:

  • The level or stage at which the prevention activities begin: before, during or after violent behaviour develops. In this context, one can distinguish between primary, secondary and tertiary prevention.
  • The types of preventive action corresponding to the cause of violence. In this context, one can distinguish between situational, social or institutional prevention measures.

Levels of violence and crime-prevention measures

Primary prevention aims to discourage violent behaviour before it develops by identifying the conditions that lead to violence and then changing them. These measures address people who do not yet show signs of violent behaviour and address any risk factors in their lives which may make them more likely to engage in violent behaviour at a later stage.

This stage of prevention aims to prevent the occurrence of violence by addressing the root causes. Examples include public information and awareness-raising campaigns, educational programmes, early-childhood interventions and establishment of policy frameworks.

Secondary prevention focuses on preventing violence from continuing or escalating, by address people who are strongly exposed to risk factors, or who have already demonstrated violent behaviour.

Such measures can focus on limiting the circumstances that favour violent behaviour (such as via urban planning initiatives to improve living standards, offering leisure activities for violent adolescents or providing emergency services); or they can promote the competencies of people (for example by offering counselling services that deal with conflicts within families, and increasing social cohesion).

Tertiary prevention focuses on the provision of long-term care following acts of violence and efforts to prevent relapses by offenders.

Such measures can address perpetrators by, for example, focusing on their rehabilitation and effecting behaviour change while facilitating their reintegration into society; or such measures can address victims by, for example, offering trauma counselling and other health-related services. Tertiary prevention can also support primary and secondary prevention by reducing further perpetration and victimisation.

Types of violence and crime-prevention measures

Situational prevention is related to physical surroundings. It aims to reduce opportunities for violence and crime that arise from environmental factors.

Examples of this include, reclaiming public spaces via participatory urban planning and the provision of public infrastructure and services; or local interventions to improve the safety of individuals and their sense of identification with public spaces. This is also referred to as Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED).

Societal prevention includes measures to strengthen social cohesion and reduce people's motivation to resort to violence.

Examples of this include, empowering vulnerable groups (individuals, families and communities) to participate in decision-making processes and supporting them in making their own interests heard; providing life-skills training to the youth via sports or arts-based activities; or providing training for parenting skills and support to parents.

Institutional prevention relates to strategies to reduce violence via changes to the broader policies, legislature and the functioning of institutions that impact on society at a local, provincial or even country level.

Examples of this include, training urban planners within administrations on safety-sensitive planning; strengthening structures for broad participation in local politics; or awareness-raising about civic and political rights and obligations.


Changing behaviours – living safety

For prevention measures to be most effective they must not be isolated events; but rather, they must be part of, or related to, a comprehensive long-term strategy that integrates the efforts of a wide range of relevant actors, combining their strengths and skills.

Ensuring the sustainability of these efforts requires that they promote a change in behaviour in the people receiving the intervention.

Such changes in behaviour can be achieved through direct and indirect influences. One important aspect in this context is the local experience people have in their family, among friends, at school or in their community.

A note on "local experience"

“… local experience, what is felt and seen and understood of the way other people in the immediate environment do things, shapes one's own view of what is 'normal', 'routine' and 'everyday'. This then provides the framework for the development of self-identity and understanding of what is required to 'connect' or 'fit' or 'achieve' in the 'normal' environment. It is in this way that a 'culture' develops and is replicated.”
(Eric Pelser, CJCP, Learning to be Lost, 2008)

This experience has a direct impact on the attitudes of people – positive or negative. By addressing this local experience, prevention measures can influence the attitudes and mind-sets of people at risk of resorting to violence and crime.

This approach places people’s potential inclination to violence in a context. Changing this context strengthens their resilience to violence and crime. In other words, changing the "local experience" can support and encourage behaviour change towards non-violent behaviour.

This also means that promoting behaviour change in key actors in people’s lives – such as family, peers, teachers or decision-makers – can induce behaviour change in them.

For example, parents may learn through targeted skills trainings how to deal with conflicts without resorting to violence. As a consequence, their children then learn that conflicts can (and should) be solved through non-violent means. Behaviour change therefore can be understood as the culmination of a learning process.


Work cited

World report on violence and health. Geneva, World Health Organization, 2002. 

Mrazek, P.J., and Haggerty, R.J., eds. 1994. Reducing Risks for Mental Disorders: Frontiers for Preventative Intervention Research. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Pollard, J.A., Hawkins, D., and Arthur, M.W. 1999. Risk and protective factors: Are both necessary to understand diverse behavioral outcomes in adolescence? Social Work Research 23(3):145–158.

Pelser, Eric (2008): Learning to be Lost: Youth Crime in South Africa – Discussion Paper for the HSRC Youth Policy Initiative, Reserve Bank, Pretoria, 13th May 2008, published by CJCP