Girls in gangs: what do we know, what are the risks?…

Gang girl

If you’re like me, when you think of gangs, you don’t think of girls.

Groups of young men in hoodies, maybe. But not girls.

Girls in gangs certainly isn’t new. But it is something that we are just beginning to understand.

In May 2013, the Centre for Mental Health published their report, “A Need to Belong – What Leads Girls to Join Gangs?” 

The following post is a summary of aspects of that report. It’s a combination of précis, paraphrase and verbatim repetition of the original work. The work is attributable to the authors of The Report.

So what is a gang and what do we know about girls in gangs…?

The Centre for Social Justice describes a gang as:

A relatively durable, predominantly street-based group of young people who, (1) see themselves (and are seen by others) as a discernible  group, (2) engage in a range of criminal activity and violence, (3) identify with or lay claim over territory, (4) have some form of identifying structural feature, and (5) are in conflict with other, similar, gangs.” 

The vulnerability of young women in gangs has been highlighted through:

  • The Home Office’s working group on Women, Girls and Gangs (link?)
  • Ongoing investigation by the office of the Children’s Commissioner for England
Despite this, there is very limited information on the specific risks for young people in gangs; this is all the more the case for girls. The Report seeks to contribute knowledge about these young women by interrogating point of arrest data on 8000 under 18 year olds. In a total sample of 8029 young people, 80 were girls.

What we know already:

  • Gangs generally organise around or identify with postcode areas, geographical neighbourhoods and/or drug-dealing territories
  • Gang involvement tends to be particularly linked with marginalised communities who face poor life-chances and higher than average levels of deprivation
  • Possession of guns has been associated with increasingly younger gang members and increasingly younger victims of gang-related violence
  • International and UK research studies generally report a predominance of male gang members
  • In the U.S.A. girls represent around a third of youth gang members; however, they tend to exit gangs earlier than boys
  • In recent years, studies have observed increasing female involvement in gangs and in the heterogeneity in the roles they adopt
  • Some studies have recorded increasing parity in the prevalence of male and female acts of violence
  • Irrespective of these facts and the shifts overtime in the relative involvement of boys and girls in gangs, there is overwhelming evidence suggesting the exploitation, vulnerability and victimisation of young women affiliated with gangs

Risk factors associated with young women in gangs:

Although based largely on U.S. data, the following summarises the emerging female-specific risk factors for gang-affiliated females:

1.  Individual/cognitive risk factors

    • Severe childhood behavioural problems including aggression (under 12 years old)
    • Pattern of attributing hostile intentions to others
    • Poorly developed problem-solving skills
    • Low self-esteem
    • Poor control over emotions
    • Risk-seeking tendency
    • Mental health problems

2.  Family risk factors

    • Poor maternal mental health
    • Experiences of maltreatment and victimisation, particularly:Harsh parenting
    • Exposure to violence in the home as a child
    • Experience of childhood trauma and prolonged life stressors
    • Low parental attachment and supervision of the child
    • Pro-violent parental attitudes
    • Sibling anti-social behaviour
    • Gang-involved relatives
    • Family poverty

3.  School risk factors

    • Low academic aspiration
    • Poor school achievement or motivation
    • School disengagement (truancy, expulsion, etc)

4.  Peer risk factors

    • Association with anti-social/aggressive/older male delinquent peers
    • Association with gang-involved peers/relatives
    • Rejection by peers or victimisation
    • Early sexual activity
    • High alcohol use
    • High cannabis use

5.  Community Risks

    • Feeling unsafe in neighbourhood
    • Low connectedness within neighbourhood
    • High levels of gang activity
    • Poor opportunities and marginalisation
    • Availability of drugs in neighbourhood 
    • High crime neighbourhood

6.  Societal risks

    • High income inequalities
    • Media influences which devalue female roles
    • Patriarchal, oppressive or gender-abusive values
    • High economic dependence on males

We have briefly looked at what a gang is and what some of the risk factors for girls are. Another major issue in this context is the violence, particularly sexual violence and exploitation, that young women can be exposed to in gangs. This will be the subject of another post.

For now, perhaps the first lesson is the need to see youth gang culture in the UK as an issue that affects not only boys, but girls too…

What do you think?…

  •  Do you have additional comments to make about gangs?
  •  What’s your experience been of working with gang-involvement young people? Girls?

Please contribute to this discussion by adding your own thoughts and experiences. You can  leave a comment by scrolling down, or just click here.

For more information…

Related previous posts…

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