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The seven myths of ‘slums’ - myth 3: slums are places of crime, violence and social degradation

Adam Parsons
08 December 2010

“Slums can be places of cruelty and violence, but equally
of solidarity, tenderness and hope; we do not 
always distinguish between the conditions of people’s
lives and the response to those conditions.” [1]


A corollary of the myth that the poor are to blame for their poverty is the widespread prejudice against slums as places of social degradation and despair, and against slum residents as perpetrators of violence and crime. In many instances, this is more a fabrication of the media than a reality. Although popular films such as City of Gods or Slumdog Millionaire may raise awareness of the problems in slums, they offer only a reductive account of the lives of poor people, playing upon the clichés and hackneyisms about urban poverty that reinforce popular prejudices, but without recognising the human decency and community ties that also exist in the slums (often with equal or greater measure than all the examples of misery and exploitation). The reality is that poor people living in informal settlements are the foremost victims of crime and violence, as opposed to the middle-classes living in wealthier neighbourhoods with higher levels of protection. Contrary to popular perceptions, many poor areas in cities of the South may even be considered relatively safe when compared to the daily robberies, burglaries and attacks experienced in many Western capital cities. Unfortunately, emphasising the crime and squalor in slums can lead to worse consequences than simply a biased misrepresentation of informal settlements, including the victimisation, disempowerment and disenfranchisement of the urban poor; further justification for slum-clearance programmes; and the wrong policy solutions to deal with rapid urbanisation and poverty.

After spending two years in four different squatter communities around the world, from Rio de Janeiro to Nairobi, Mumbai and Istanbul, the journalist Robert Neuwirth writes of his personal encounter with popular prejudice against squatters. When interviewed by Indian newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations during his stay in various low-income communities across Mumbai, his positive descriptions of generosity and communal spirit were twisted by reporters who stressed only the ‘high crime in slums’ angle that they thought their editors and readers wanted. Neuwirth writes: “...it seems that many in the elite, newspaper-reading and -writing population in Mumbai have had it drilled into their heads for years that squatters are neglectful and criminal and intransigent, and attempts to tell a different story don’t get heard – or, at least, don’t get printed.”[2] In contrast, his stay in one of Rio de Janeiro’s most notorious favelas was not an experience of non-stop crime and violence, as usually portrayed in films and the media, but of relative safety and community protection. The squatter community may have been controlled by drug gangs, but the risk of running a business or getting robbed in the favela was dramatically less than in the ‘legal’ city centre.[3] In Nairobi, Neuwirth also found that the ‘legal’ neighbourhood of Eastleigh was the centre of gun dealing, and more dangerous than many squatter areas. “Squatter communities may be illegal,” he writes, “but that doesn’t make them criminal.”[4]

Although high levels of crime may occur in many informal settlements, the popular representation of life in slums often fails to acknowledge the deeper causes of insecurity and violence. In a recent study on urban safety and security by UN-HABITAT, data revealed that violence and crime are at present widespread in all countries of the world. Over the period 1980-2000, total recorded crime rates increased globally by around 30 percent; while between 2001 to 2006, 60 percent of all urban residents were victims of crime, compared to 70 percent in Latin America and Africa.[5] In all the studies cited, a correlation exists between levels of crime and incidences of poverty, inequality, social exclusion, and youth unemployment. The quality of municipal government and the effectiveness of urban planning and urban management is also a key factor in the victimisation rates of the poor and vulnerable population segments.[6] Yet these causal factors - and most importantly, the responsibilities and failures of state institutions - often go unacknowledged in media representations of violence and crime in informal settlements.

A prime example was seen in the major violence that erupted across the slums of Nairobi in early 2008. While many journalists portrayed the street warfare as resulting from “tribal barbarism” and “irrational hatreds” of the poor, fewer commentaries acknowledged the underlying reasons for the carnage that led to 1,200 deaths and the displacement of more than 300,000 innocent people – one of the most horrifying instances of a ‘slum clash’ in modern times. The history of Kenya’s poor resource allocation was easily overlooked, with its skewed patterns of land distribution among the most unequal in the world since its independence in 1963. In many newspapers, reportage of the ethnically-motivated killings was also stripped of context, including the fact that around 60 percent of the city population live in slum conditions on 5 percent of the land and receive almost no government protection, public welfare or basic service provision. At the same time as police officers were witnessed shooting protesters during the period of violence, the privileged minority in Nairobi were given a heavy police protection along all the major roads, and were largely unharmed by the social upheaval - another fact that drew little comment in the mainstream press.[7] The effect is to reinforce popular prejudices and fears against slums and slum residents, thereby criminalising the urban poor without acknowledging the extreme inequality, poverty and disenfranchisement that sows the seeds of violence and social disorder.

The popular view of slums as centres of crime and havens for criminals is also a commonplace excuse for governments to deal with the consequences of urban poverty whilst ignoring its causes. Despite the realisation of most governments since the 1970s that eradication policies exacerbate the problem of slums [see Myth 2], slum-clearance operations are still justified on the basis of fighting crime. Although scores of examples could be cited over recent decades from Zambia to Kuala Lumpur, the Philippines to Beijing, perhaps the most notorious incident occurred in the aftermath of the 2005 Zimbabwe elections. In a police assault that was callously titled Operation Murambasvina (“Drive Out Trash”), over 700,000 Zimbabweans lost their homes or source of livelihood or both, with street vendors branded as criminals to excuse tearing down their soapbox stalls. An estimated 2.4 million people were directly affected in a campaign to ‘restore order’ to the city, using the same arguments about criminality and urban squalor that were adopted in the colonial past.[8] Similar strategies are used to deal with street children who tend to turn to crime as a survival mechanism. Rather than combating the causes of child delinquency and their criminal behaviour, youth gangs are an easy victim of paramilitary and para-police forces who partake in ‘cleansing’ practices, a phenomenon that is consistently reported in Brazil, Guatemala, India and Kenya among other low-income countries.[9] In all these cases it is the poor who are the real victims of urban violence, while the actual perpetrator is an uncaring state apparatus that fails to represent their concerns.[10] Urban violence also leads to the erosion of grassroots civil organisations and urban political institutions, and therefore undermines the real solution to poverty in cities – the empowerment of the urban poor themselves.[11]

The language of ‘slums’

Part of the reason for prejudiced gut reactions to urban squalor is the current use of language, particularly in relation to the word ‘slum’. The origins of the term in nineteenth-century England had distinctly negative connotations, with slums usually stigmatised as centres of crime and infectious disease – an association that still resonates in many people’s minds today.[12] Although usage of the word ‘slum’ was largely discredited by academics for many decades in the twentieth century, the United Nations is largely responsible for resurrecting the term following its ‘Cities Without Slums’ initiative in 1999 (later translated into the Millennium Development Goal to “achieve significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum-dwellers by 2020” - see Myth 7). The UN’s use of the slogan may have the noble intention of increasing official and public interest in the problem of inadequate housing, but its historical and emotional connotations also carry the danger of reinforcing negative stereotypes about the urban poor. Just as the popular literature of Victorian London assumed that all people living in slum areas were of a degenerate character, the word slum can confuse the physical problem of poor quality housing with the characteristics of the people living there.[13] In recent years, it is common practice for the media to pick up on the words ‘slum’ and ‘slum-dwellers’ and emphasise the crime, disease and squalor associated with life in low-income settlements.[14] The plethora of such reports can have the effect of kindling fear and foreboding from the middle-classes, and of portraying slum residents as an “anomic mass of human derelicts” without agency or uniqueness.[15] This tendency to generalise about the qualities of slums across the world serves to reduce the lives of all their occupants to the lowest common denominator, and can prevent us from perceiving the awkward contradictions and differences among slums worldwide.[16] At worst, the negative associations with the word ‘slum’ can be used by demagogic mayors and government ministers to justify slum demolition programmes as a way of ‘improving’ life in the city [see box 2 below].[17]

Box 2: Using ‘slum’ rhetoric to discriminate against the urban poor

In South Africa, the passing of the Slum Elimination Act in 2007 is a key example of how language in relation to ‘slums’ can be used to criminalise the urban poor, to justify slum-clearance operations, and to allow governments to deal with the consequences of urban poverty whilst ignoring its causes. In a press statement issued before the bill was passed in 2007, the South African shack-dwellers’ movement called Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM) explained why the new legislation would support “the rich against the poor”, as evidenced in the bill’s language. AbM claimed that the word “eliminate” was being used to introduce draconian measures to simply remove shack-dwellers from informally-occupied land, instead of giving them appropriate support for slum improvement and security of tenure. Many of the fears expressed by AbM were sadly validated in the ensuing years. Since the passing of the Act, tens of thousands of shack-dwellers across South Africa (mainly in Cape Town and Johannesburg, as well as Durban) have been evicted to transit camps – reminiscent of the sites used in the apartheid era during the Fifites for the screening, segregation and repatriation of unwanted black urbanites. Although the government maintains that the camps are temporary, ‘formal’ and an acceptable stop-gap in the process of delivering permanent houses, the conditions in the camps are often far worse than in the informal shantytowns. Most transit camps consist of one-room shacks with tin roofs and paper-thin walls, are often without electricity, and are typically encircled around the perimeter with fencing, barbed wire and police security at lockable gates.[18] In the run up to the 2010 football World Cup held in South Africa, many further thousands of people were evicted from their homes in nearby sites, and thousands of traders were banned from their places of work – as foretold several years before by Abahlali baseMjondolo and other human rights activists.[19] As the statement below explains, the justification for the forced relocation and eviction of the urban poor is marked by the use of such words as “slum”, “eradication” and “informal”.

Abahlali baseMjondolo Press Statement Thursday, 21 June 2007: Operation Murambatsvina comes to KZN - The Notorious Elimination & Prevention of Re-emergence of Slums Bill.[20]

“...The Bill uses the word ‘slum’ in a way that makes it sound like the places where poor people live are a problem that must be cleared away because there is something wrong with poor people. But it does not admit that the poor have been made poor [by] the same history of theft and exploitation that made the rich to be rich [sic] and it does not admit that places where poor people live often lack infrastructure and toilets because of the failure of landlords or the government to provide these things. The solution to the fact that we often don’t have toilets in our communities is to provide toilets where we live and not to destroy our communities and move us out of the city. In this Bill the word ‘slum’ is used to make it sound like the poor and the places where they live are the problem rather than the rich and the way in which they have made the poor to be poor and to be kept poor by a lack of development.

“In America black community organizations have opposed the use of the word ‘slum’ to describe their communities because they say it makes it sound like there is something wrong with them and their places rather than the system that makes them poor and fails to develop their places. They also say that once a place is called a ‘slum’ it is easy for the rich and governments to say that it must be ‘cleared’ or ‘eliminated’ but if a place is called a community then it is easier to say that it must be supported and developed.

“There is also a problem with calling imijondolo [shack settlements] ‘informal settlements’ because once a place is called ‘informal’ it is easy for people to say that it shouldn’t get any of the ‘formal’ services that people need for a proper life like electricity, toilets, refuse collection and so on. But many of us have lived our whole lives in ‘informal settlements’. We can’t wait until we live in ‘formal’ houses to get electricity to stop the fires, water, toilets, drainage, refuse collection and so on. We are living our lives now. We can’t wait to start living only when and if the government puts us in a ‘formal’ one roomed ‘house’ far out of town.

“And we don’t like the word ‘eliminate’. This is a word that is violent and threatening, not respectful and caring. Our communities should be nurtured, not eliminated.

“The people who live in the imijondolo must decide for themselves what they want their communities to be called. We must be allowed to define ourselves and to speak for ourselves.

“...This Bill makes anyone who tries to stop an eviction a criminal who can be fined R20,000 or sent to prison for 5 years. Any normal person would try to stop an eviction. Which mother would stand by while her home and community is destroyed? If this law is passed it will make us all criminals. But this law says nothing about stopping the illegal and unconstitutional evictions that are perpetrated against shackdwellers all the time by the eThekwini Municipality. The Municipality breaks the law every time that it evicts us without a court order and every time it leaves people homeless but Municipal officials are never arrested. If the laws that exist now are not used fairly we have no guarantee that this [new] law will be used fairly.

“...A World Class city is not a city where the poor are pushed out of the city. A World Class city is a city where the poor are treated with dignity and respect and money is spent on real needs like houses and toilets and clean water and electricity and schools and libraries rather than fancy things for the rich like stadiums and casinos that our cities can just not afford.

“We will fight this Bill in the courts. We will fight this Bill in the streets. We will fight this Bill in the way we live our ordinary lives everyday. We will not be driven out of our cities as if we were rubbish.”

The author Jeremy Seabrook has described many of the squatter communities that contradict the negative stereotypes about ‘slums’ in the cities of South Asia. One informal settlement called Mirpur Six in Dhaka, Bangladesh, recreates the pattern of village construction and still utilises the materials of the natural world. Built with bamboo frames on platforms of compacted red soil, such ‘slums’ would decay naturally if suddenly returned to the earth. The community also retains other sensibilities of rural life; the seasonal offerings of jackfruit and mango trees is shared among the residents, the families are united against intruders and invasion from outsiders, and a community solidarity is evinced in their caring for the sick and dying.[21] Despite the conditions of extreme deprivation, there exists many such small oases of mutual help and protection where the poor, at least to some extent, try to re-create the social relationships of the village.[22] In Bangkok, Seabrook discovered that newcomers to the city cannot understand why money is not given to those who do not have any; in the villages, where rice represented wealth, people were always ready to share any surplus with their neighbours.[23] In Dharavi, Mumbai, he was told by residents that neighbourhood is their survival, and the crowded places of the slums are a form of safeguard against abuse and violence. If anything happens to someone, news will quickly spread and “a hundred people will come running”. Social cohesion also means that neglected or abused children are taken in by other families, while the poor offer food to the hungry. For such reasons, residents are opposed to government plans to reconstruct Dharavi into apartment blocks where “people close their doors and no-one knows what happens behind them,” and instead want the community to be reconstructured on the chawl system (single- or two-storey houses).[24] Life in the slums is also characterised by innumberable examples of self-sacrifice, altruism and community service, such as the private doctor in Dharavi who provides a free medical service to those who cannot pay,[25] or the unrecorded generosities of the poor in Klong Toey, Bangkok, who get into debt with private moneylenders for the sake of their children.[26] In cities of the Philippinnes, Seabrook writes that most slums are perceived as a threat to order; “...this is no longer because they are going to overthrow society, or are prey to destabilizing leftist beliefs, but because their capacity for autonomy, self-reliance and independence suggests that they hold the key to a different way of doing things, that they represent the embryo of an alternative social order that is more egalitarian and solidaristic – the reverse of that ideology of extreme individualism preached by the powerful”.[27]

This sentiment that squatter settlements can be equally an example of community and kinship than crime and social despair is given some evidence in the citizen-led, co-operative approach to slum upgrading and social housing construction. Somsook Boonyabancha, founder of the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR) in Thailand, has observed how truly participative upgrading strategies can unleash a “communal creativity” that leads to other collective solutions to meeting peoples’ various needs. In several of the Baan Mankong projects [see Myth 2], this is expressed in the construction of special shelters on collectively-purchased land for needy community members, such as destitute widows, AIDS orphans, the disabled or the elderly – a form of welfare system provided by the local community themselves known as a baan klang or ‘central house’.[28] Boonyabancha calls this, at base, the rebuilding of “human culture” and a “sharing spirit” that has been eroded in recent decades.[29] Instead of saying ‘I’, everyone uses ‘We’, and the concept of “poverty alleviation” is reconceived from being “something like dirt that we have to sweep out of the city so everyone will be rich and happy”. Instead, poverty is no longer seen as a problem, but as a resource – in the sense that people who face poverty possess considerable strength and capacity.[30] Furthermore, city mayors and civil servants are led to alter their perceptions of the urban poor through their experience of collaborating with social organisations in the city-wide, horizontal approach to upgrading. Slum communities are no longer seen as a hotbed of crime that inhibits a city’s development, but as a normal part of existing urban structures – not something outside the city system. The artificial attitudes of ‘them versus us’, or ‘illegal versus legal’, are naturally broken down, and city authorities and politicians are more likely to view ‘slum-dwellers’ as normal and highly capable human beings. As a consequence, they are more inclined to engage in discussions on how they can help fix the housing problems of the very poor, and are less likely to view slums as a blight to be ‘cleared away’.[31]

The danger of over-emphasising ‘community’

Highlighting the agency of slum residents or the positive aspects of life in ‘slums’ is, of course, not to glorify or sentimentalise the urban poor and their self-help housing. It is also true that for all the squatter settlements that exhibit a strong sense of community, as many others are characterised by the opposite qualities of ruthless individualism and petty-exploitation in which the poor, frequently suffering from extreme deprivation and oppression, turn their backs on the misfortunes of their neighbours. As one resident of the Kibera settlement in Nairobi put it (a widowed grandmother suffering from HIV, hunger and absolute poverty, and forced to look after 12 dependent children and grandchildren inside a small corrugated-roofed rented shanty); “Eh! The neighbours can’t help us because they have their own problems.”[32] There can also be little community in a slum that suffers repeated evictions, forced removals, or constant uprootedness through violence and police coercion. A greater danger exists if the positive profiles of slums help to justify a withdrawal of state and local government investment and support, in keeping with the World Bank and IMF ideology that pushed for the abandonment of state-interventionist policies [see Myth 1]. In stressing the ability, courage and capacity for self-help of the urban poor, it may enable governments and development agencies to deflect attention from the poverty crisis faced by developing cities. Even worse, it may help governments to rationalise or excuse cuts made on social spending through liberalisation and privatisation programmes, and thereby absolve themselves of the responsibility to secure access to basic needs as a universal human right. By stressing the ability of the poor to help themselves, to become proactive in providing essential services and generating their own employment, the way is prepared for the state to disengage and leave them to the mercy of market forces.[33]

While the self-help achievements of slum-dwellers have been celebrated in a number of stories and television documentaries over recent years, too often the stereotypical view of squatters as something ‘other’ - whether it be criminals, idlers, parasites, usurpers, prostitutes, the diseased, drunks or drug addicts – is the most common response to the urban poor. Evidence for such views may be easily corroborated in the ghetto neighbourhoods of low-income cities, but the criminal sub-cultures and degenerates of many urban slums are only a part of the complex global reality that is more contradictory, and far more uncomfortable, than the sensationalised portrayals in newspapers and cinemas may have us believe. These prejudiced opinions persist even though many cities and industries would come to a halt without the labour provided by slum-dwellers, not only in driving the middle-classes to work or hauling the materials for new homes and offices, but also in providing domestic labour. The supposed ‘criminals’ and ‘layabouts’ that live in urban slums may also be catering for more privileged families, washing their clothes, and taking care of their children.[34] The complacency evinced in these attitudes may go some way to explaining the general apathy and lack of political will among many governments to implement policies aimed at improving the living conditions of slum residents. In this regard, the first step towards addressing the problems of slum residents may start with the limited conception of informal settlements in the popular imagination, and in ceasing to treat these settlements as ‘slums’ at all – that is, as blighted areas of squalor, disease and crime – but rather as vibrant communities that display great reservoirs of resourcefulness, dignity and compassion despite the persistence of extreme inequality and public neglect.



[1] Jeremy Seabrook, In the Cities of the South: Scenes from a Developing World, Verso, 1996, p. 174. 

[2] Robert Neuwirth, Shadow Cities, Routledge, New York, 2006, p. 252.

[3] Ibid, pp. 258-9.

[4] Ibid, p. 280.

[5] UN-HABITAT, Global Report on Human Settlements 2007: Enhancing Urban Safety and Security, Earthscan, London, pp. 54-55.

[6] Kees Koonings and Dirk Kruijt (eds), Megacities: The Politics Of Urban Exclusion And Violence In The Global South, Zed books, January 2010, p. 15.

[7] Adam Parsons, Megaslumming: A Journey Through sub-Saharan Africa’s Largest Shantytown, Share The World’s Resources, pp. 10-14.

[8] Andrew Meldrum, ‘A Tsunami of Demolitions’, New Internationalist, Issue 386, January 2006.

[9] Human Rights Watch, Easy Targets: Violence Against Children Worldwide, September 2001; see also UN General Assembly, Report of the Independent Expert for the United Nations Study on Violence Against Children, 29th August 2006.

[10] P. Gizewski and T. Homer-Dixon, Urban Growth and Violence: Will the Future Resemble the Past?, AAAS and University of Toronto: Project on Environment, Population and Security, 1995.

[11] see Kees Koonings and Dirk Kruijt, op cit, p. 25.

[12] Anthony S. Wohl, The Eternal Slum: Housing and Social Policy in Victorian London, Edward Arnold, New Jersey, 1977.

[13] Alan Gilbert, ‘The Return of the Slum: Does Language Matter?’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Volume 31.4, December 2007, pp. 702-703, 710.

[14] For example, see Daniel Howden, ‘Planet of the slums: UN warns urban populations set to double’, The Independent, 27th June 2007; Jennifer Rowell, ‘The slums in the world's teeming cities need an urgent solution’, The Guardian, 28 March 2006.

[15] Kees Koonings and Dirk Kruijt, op cit, p. 23.

[16] Alan Gilbert, op cit, p. 38.

[17] Ibid, pp. 608-9.

[18] Kerry Chance, Marie Huchzermeyer and Mark Hunter, ‘Listen to the shack-dwellers: Tens of thousands of shack-dwellers in South Africa are doomed to be evicted to transit camps’, Mail and Guardian, South Africa, 24th June 2009.

[19] see David Smith, ‘Life in ‘Tin Can Town’ for the South Africans evicted ahead of World Cup’, The Guardian (UK), 1st April 2010; see also War on Want, ‘Write to the High Commissioner to demand justice for South Africa’s poor’, July 2010, www.waronwant.org

[20] ‘Eliminate the Slums Act - Original press statement and digital archive’, 21st June 2007, www.abahlali.org

[21] Jeremy Seabrook, In the Cities of the South, op cit, pp. 176-182. 

[22] Ibid, p. 41. 

[23] Ibid, pp. 3, 30. 

[24] Ibid, p. 66.

[25] Ibid, pp. 61-62.

[26] Ibid, p. 189.

[27] Ibid, pp. 200-201.

[28] See Box 1, in Somsook Boonyabancha, ‘Baan Mankong: Going to Scale with “Slum” and Squatter Upgrading in Thailand’, in Environment and Urbanization, Vol. 17, No. 1, April 2005, p. 41.

[29] See Box 1, ibid, pp. 41-42.

[30] Ibid, pp. 42-43.

[31] Ibid, pp 38-39.

[32] Adam Parsons, op cit, p. 70.

[33] Jeremy Seabook, ‘The City, Our Stepmother: Ten Years in the Life of a Slum Community’, New Internationalist, Issue 290, May 1997.

[34] For example, the Bangladesh Demographic and Health Survey (BDHS) discovered that female residents of slum areas tended to work as housekeepers, labourers or in the garment piecework, while male adults and children tended to work as rickshaw pullers, labourers, brick breakers, drivers or carpenters. See Bangladesh Demographic and Health Survey 2007, National Institute of Population Research and Training (NIPORT), Dhaka, Bangladesh, March 2009. See also Rasna Warah, ‘Slums Are the Heartbeat of Cities’, East African, 6th October 2003.

Link to full report [pdf]: The Seven Myths of 'Slums' - Challenging Popular Prejudices About the World's Urban Poor

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