“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”
-Martin Luther King, Jr.
MLK day, commemorating the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., is one which inspires an ethic of service across the United States. In the wake of the horrific earthquake in Haiti, we along with many others in the U.S. and across the globe are compelled to turn our attention, concern, and service toward the people of Haiti.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described the aftermath of the Jan. 12, 2010 Haiti earthquake as “one of the most serious humanitarian crises in decades” … “The damage, destruction and loss of life are just overwhelming,” Ban said after witnessing it first hand (Huffington Post Jan. 17, 2010).
The scramble to salvage lives is still on, with untold numbers still trapped under slabs of concrete. Tens of thousands are in need of immediate medical care, as well as food, water, and shelter. Meanwhile many are also deeply worried about the days, weeks, years, and decades to come. Where does one even begin in helping Haiti, with such a shattered infrastructure and pervasive poverty? How did Haiti get to be so poor and shattered to begin with?
Paul Farmer, Ph.D. M.D., an internationally recognized health scholar, activist, and practitioner (working in Haiti for 15 yrs, author of several books and articles including Pathologies of Power, and founder of the non-profit organization Partners in Health), has coined the term “structural violence” to explain how patterns of poverty and human misery are linked to particular global social-economic contexts:
The term “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 (typically, not those responsible for perpetuating such inequalities). With few exceptions, clinicians are not trained to understand such social forces, nor are we trained to alter them. Yet it has long been clear that many medical and public health interventions will fail if we are unable to understand the social determinants of disease. (Farmer et al, 2006).
While structural violence is not the cause of Haiti’s earthquake, it has everything to do with the context of Haiti before, and now potentially also after, the earthquake. The concept of structural violence can be seen as intimately connected to all health and life outcomes including issues related to sexuality to sexual health. In their book, Sexuality, Health, and Human Rights, Correa, Petchesky, and Parker apply this sort of holistic thinking to encourage sexuality scholars to reject false divisions between “erotic justice and social justice (and consequently between movements for sexual rights, and those aimed at economic development and ending poverty and war)”… “Such a division makes no sense in the context of real people’s lives,” they state. They continue by arguing that:
“Treating sexuality as something separate from political economy ignores the fact that health care access, affordable housing, adequate nutrition, safe environments, and secure livelihoods are indispensable for safe and pleasureable erotic experience to be real.” (Correa et al., p. 220, 2008).
The need for help in rebuilding Haiti is comprehensive, across all occupational and institutional sectors. It is important to support groups such as Partners in Health which address both the immediate health and human needs and also work toward alleviating the structural causes of inequality.
“Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” -MLK
- Correa, S. Petchesky, R. and Parker, R. 2008. Sexuality, Health, and Human Rights. NY: Routledge.
- Farmer, P. et al. 2006, Oct. “Structural Violence and Clinical Medicine.” PLoS Medicine.
- Farmer, P. 2003. Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor. California Series in Public Anthropology. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Schuller, M. Jan. 15, 2010. “Starfish and Seawalls: Responding to Haiti’s Earthquake, Now and Long-Term.” CommonDreams.org.
Richard H. — January 13, 2011
While I appreciate the insightful work done by Paul Farmer in Haiti, the term "structural violence" was not coined by him. It is commonly ascribed it to Johann Galtung, who used it over 30 years ago, distinguishing it from "direct, personal" violence.