The social services in Canada are there to be the safety nets we need when our options run out, or we can no longer find the resources (financially, mentally, physically) to protect our own well-being and that of our family’s. As a citizen who has needed to rely on these social services more than once, and also as someone working in the area of poverty reduction, I become more and more in tune with the sad notion that those safety nets designed to protect us, can often be the ones further harming our well-being.
I first came across the term “structural violence” in Mary Bassett’s TED Talk “Why your doctor should care about social justice,” in which she describes her many medical missions in Zimbabwe, and her one regret: not bringing more attention to, and calling out, the structural inequities that make marginalized people more vulnerable.
It’s difficult to find a good definition of structural violence, but this one by Farmer, et al (2006) seems to be the best:
Structural violence is one way of describing social arrangements that put individuals and populations in harm’s way… The arrangements are structural because they are embedded in the political and economic organization of our social world; they are violent because they cause injury to people … neither culture nor pure individual will is at fault; rather, historically given (and often economically driven) processes and forces conspire to constrain individual agency. Structural violence is visited upon all those whose social status denies them access to the fruits of scientific and social progress.
Once I knew about this term, I couldn’t get away from it, and it began becoming a topic I kept running into. At a Health Equity conference, I attended, we discussed structural violence, and the importance of people at all levels of the social service to understand structural violence, and to do their part to eradicate it.
How does structural violence manifest itself in London’s fight to end poverty?
Structural violence occurs in London when…
- People seeking support or rehabilitation for addictions are placed on a long-wait list with no interim support.
- The receptionist at a social service agency forgets to pass on time-sensitive message of a client to his caseworker.
- When a social service agency never returns the calls of people seeking their support. (I heard of one of these instances recently, and the effects on the individual were tragic)
- A university student is placed on a months-long wait list for mental health support with no interim support.
- Someone is turned away from registering for a program due to lack of identification.
- When someone with low literacy skills is expected to fill out complicated paperwork to access income support.
- When access to services are denied based on stringent qualifying requirements.
- When a newcomer is not able to access all other services due to a language barrier.
- A difficulty in retrieving the proper paperwork results in termination of EI benefits.
- Someone is dismissed from mental health care facilities without transitional support.
- Programs and services are offered at inaccessible times in remote locations without many transportation options.
Structural violence often starts as something unintentional – a missed call, a forgotten follow up, being placed on a wait list – but what makes these acts violent is that each small act of structural inequality builds up on an individual seeking help. Barrier after barrier gives vulnerable people the idea that help is nowhere to be found.
If we looked at our own roles in poverty reduction, we may recognize that we are committing structural violence without realizing it. How can EVERYONE working in social support services understand structural violence, recognize it, and adjust their own approaches to mitigate the further harm done to those who need a hand up?
We all have a role to play to ensure that violence is not experienced at any and all levels of the structures that we have built as safety nets. What is your role in eradicating structural violence?
Farmer, P. E., Nizeye, B., Stulac, S., & Keshavjee, S. (2006). Structural violence and clinical medicine. PLoS Med, 3(10), e449.