Subtlety of Structural Violence


Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum - April 2014


Structural violence manifests in various forms including ethnicity poverty and inequalities, colonial legacy, as well as structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) in particular. Critical to note in structural violence is that poverty or ill health or lack of access to services (the violent processes) is generally blamed on the victim, when in actual fact it is the state responsible.

Structural violence has some terrible effects. It erases the history and consciousness of the social origins of poverty, sickness, hunger, and premature death. The embeddedness of structural violence also results in the above challenges being taken for granted or naturalised so that no one is held accountable.

Many human rights reports in Zimbabwe have focused on direct violence because it is easy to identify the perpetrator, victim and form of violence used; and even quantifying the extent of damage. Direct violence is “the most obvious and overt form of violence perpetuated by one or more disputants directly upon those with whom they are in conflict”. Direct violence, which includes organised violence and torture, denote the use of physical force and is typified by intimidation, murder, torture, rape, and assault among others.

Since independence Zimbabwean society faced the threat of organised violence and torture. The problem has not diminished despite efforts made by different stakeholders, such as human rights organisations, human rights systems and the existence of regional and international human rights Conventions. This deficit may be attributable to non-inclusion of structural violence in the equation. Therefore an investigation on the nature of structural violence can make a valuable contribution to the understanding of the underlying causes of organised violence and torture.

From 2000 to 2008 the Zimbabwean social, economic and political crisis worsened, characterized by gross human rights violations, disrespect of the rule of the law, shortages of basic commodities, and hyperinflation among other ills that are already documented. The economic crisis resulted in unprecedented unemployment levels estimated to have risen sharply from 50% in 1999 to 95% in 2009. The industrial and agricultural sectors imploded. The increase in unemployed youths on the streets created an opportunity for the conflict entrepreneurs to hire them for acts of violence against their known and perceived enemies in exchange for jobs, cash and/or beer.

Non-state actors mounted pressure on the state to address direct violence against citizens. In the background other forms of invisible human rights abuses took place. The violations were  characterised by a lack of clear identification of actors, making it less visible (but not less harmful). This resulted in less advocacy work around it.

An analysis of structural violence (its causes and effects) will help show the interplay between structural and direct violence. This will assist in coming up with long term solutions that will put an end to endemic human rights problems that the general populace face. By acknowledging the subtlety of structural violence, it is possible to assign culpability and the social, legal and economic systems that have to be challenged.


Although direct violence tends to be more visible and easily perceived than structural violence, the two forms of violence are interdependent. Structural violence is both a source and a result of direct violence. More often than not the process is circular; structural violence may lead an oppressed group to direct violence, which in turn leads to further oppression to curb the direct violence. For example, if a government feels threatened by the people protesting substandard living conditions, the government may respond with further oppression to curb the direct violence.

Thus people living in deteriorating socio-economic conditions and see themselves as unable to satisfy their needs in the face of a political system that they cannot otherwise influence, may resort to direct violence to address their needs. Likewise those in power often feel they must use direct violence to curb the unrest produced by structural violence. It is without doubt that structural violence leads to actions of direct violence. The existence of structural violence, such as unequal distribution of resources or a corrupt political system inevitably produces conflict, and often-direct violence.

Violence has to be understood within the context in which it unfolds. For Zimbabwe, the wider context of the socio-political economy has been the key to determining the nature of structural and personal expressions of violence in which vulnerability and powerlessness of the general public has been evident. The failures to redress the socio-economic issues that are bewildering society have multidimensional consequences to the direct violence that is experienced in society.

There has been a growing nexus in which structural violence and direct violence have been a means and an end to depressing the achievement and enjoyment of human rights. Thus, the embededness of violence in social structures cannot be underestimated and, while greater attention has been put on prevention of primarily direct violence more focus must be put on the detection and mitigation of structural violence as both forms of violence are threats to human security.