ABUJA, Nigeria — Boko Haram and their kidnapping of nearly three hundred Nigerian schoolgirls has sparked an international debate about the link between violence and poverty. The extremist group, formed in the impoverished region of Maiduguri in 2002, has focused its recruitment efforts on penniless young men and children, offering financial security and vengeance against the western world.
While officially denounced by the wider Islamic community, Boko Haram has grown in power during the last decade. The Nigerian government has done little to stop them. Meanwhile, Nigeria’s women and girls have lived in a state of fear, heightened by the recent raid of the girls’ school and the abduction of its students.
In a recent CNN report, Imam Mohamed Magid, representative and president of the Islamic Society of North America, and Ritu Sharma, co-founder of Women Thrive Worldwide, have blamed the extremists’ foot-hold on the unacceptable levels of poverty in Nigeria and its neighboring states. “It is little wonder,” say Magid and Sharma, “that the local population is disillusioned, and in some cases tempted by misleading promises of something better.”
Yet “temptation” to criminal behavior does not complete the equation. The link between violence and poverty is a complicated one, comprised of many strings and hidden chains. Studies both of genetics and of law are showing that violence and poverty are more closely connected than previously imagined. Both these factors contribute to the perpetuation of poverty and the violence that shadows it.
Gary Haugen is the author of “The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence.” In his book, Haugen acknowledges the traditional contributors to poverty — hunger, corrupt politicians, disease and more — but he directs his focus at the judicial system. For the world’s poor, the legal system is another contributor to violence.
Gender-based violence, slavery, police brutality and land theft are all protected by law in some countries, especially those that were formerly colonial possessions. The perpetrators of these violent crimes benefit from the law because that legislation is in most cases a hold-over from colonial rule, when courts were meant to protect the crown and to profit off the poor or vulnerable.
Haugen argues that commonplace acts of violence like domestic abuse and police brutality may be greater contributors to poverty than even war or genocide, trapping the poor in an institution-driven loop with minimal concern for their well-being.
When it comes to remedying this situation, Haugen urges that nations be index-ranked according to their justice systems. He hopes that such a scale, like those used to evaluate economics, poverty and education, may put the quiet crisis into perspective and inspire action.
Coming at the problem from another angle, scientists in South Africa have conducted groundbreaking research into the genetics of poverty. Barak Morgan and his team at the University of Cape Town have detected a condition that they term “toxic stress.”
Found predominantly among poor communities, toxic stress is a broad term for a series of harmful epigenetic markers that implant themselves on a child’s DNA during early development. The markers may appear for a range of purposes, including poor nutrition, lack of nurturing, neglect, the constant stress of poverty and physical or emotional violence.
The first three years of a child’s life are the most crucial. Though childhood has long been the focus of research, Morgan and other scientists are working to narrow the focus to a period of 1000 days. Studies show that babies and infants are more sensitive to their environments during these first three years than they will be at any other time in their lives. During this period, negative environmental stimuli can have devastating results.
In the same way that positive stimuli aid in children’s brain development, negative stimuli like stress and malnourishment can impede it, preconditioning an infant to poor self-regulation and a kind of stunted emotional state. An adult who experienced toxic stress as a child, according to Morgan, is more likely to face financial difficulty, develop substance abuse problems, earn a lower income, suffer poor physical health, become a criminal or even commit suicide.
Exacerbating the problem, sufferers of toxic stress are more likely than non-sufferers to raise their children in a toxic environment. Overcoming toxic stress then becomes a generational battle.
Morgan hopes that his findings will be leverage for improving the care of babies and infants in poverty-stricken areas. After all, preventing or reducing toxic stress is not only easier but cheaper than trying to make corrections during later childhood and eventually adulthood.
In South Africa, health workers are proving useful in combating toxic stress. They visit new mothers and take the time to teach them about proper infant care.
When health workers are not available, cash transfers may be the ticket to curbing stress-induced poverty. In exchange for sending their children to school, attending post-pregnancy workshops and immunizing their children, mothers in some countries can receive government stipends. This money can be spent on school, nutritious food, medicine or home improvement, all of which improve a child’s environment even more.
The link between violence and poverty is a strong and long-standing one, but pioneers like Haugen and Morgan continue to deepen our understanding of this complex topic.
And with greater understanding comes a greater power to act.