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Illustration: Three health workers, closing eyes, ears, and mouth.
What medical peace work is NOT: closing our eyes, ears, and mouth when faced with violence.

Peace as the capacity to deal with conflicts positively

Medical peace work takes place when health professionals address conflicts in ways that reduce violence, prevent violence, and promote peace – with the ultimate goal of improving health.

Why do we need medical peace work?

  1. Violence has a huge impact on health. Violence, in its various forms, at different levels, is a major cause of global morbidity and mortality.
  2. Health professionals can easily become the perpetrators of violence. This can happen intentionally (through the abuse of power, through neglect, or omission), and unintentionally (by being part of a violent structure).
  3. Health professionals have a great potential to treat, prevent and reduce violence, as well as to build peaceful societies in their role as healers, mediators, bridge builders, advocates, and educators.

Timing of peace work

Peace work can take place before a conflict turns violent, during violence, and after it has happened. We can borrow the concepts of primary, secondary and tertiary prevention from the discipline of public health. Primary prevention means interventions that attempt to stop a health problem from occurring in the first place. Infectious diseases, for example, may be prevented through better hygiene and vaccination. Secondary prevention involves interventions where a health problem already exists. It focuses on preventing further deterioration. An example is screening for cancer. Tertiary prevention depicts interventions, when acute health problems are under control, that can contribute towards preventing and mitigating the long-term negative effects. An example is physical therapy after a bone fracture.

Let’s apply these concepts now to the problem of violence!

Timing of peace work
© medicalpeacework.org

Primary prevention of violence is peace work focusing on the reduction of risk factors, or the strengthening of protective factors. This can be in form of disarmament work, or in the form of promoting equal access to health services.

Secondary prevention of violence involves identification and early warning of violence, as well as initiatives for de-escalation and constructive handling of conflict.

Tertiary prevention of violence involves the 3 Rs which should be considered after violence has occurred: reconstruction, resolution of a conflict, and reconciliation.

If you would like to read more about this, take a look at Chapter 2: medical peace work - a response to violent conflict in Course 1 of the Medical Peace Work textbook


Have you ever tried to combine health work with peace-building work? If so, what did you do and which challenges did you face?

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This article is from the free online course:

Global Health, Conflict and Violence

University of Bergen