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16 Days of Action: Women, girls and gangs

Portrait of two young women, one looking directly at the camera and the other looking away from it. Overlaid is the text "16 Days of Action against Gender-Based Violence".

Backed by the United Nations and organisations around the world, 16 days of Action against Gender-Based Violence is an annual international campaign which calls for the end of violence against women and girls (VAWG). Catch22 are running a series of blogs highlighting the various different forms VAWG can take, approaches to tackling it and supporting its victims and how we can keep up the movement’s momentum.

Today’s blog is by Anna Smith, Gangs and Violence Reduction Coordinator at HMP Leeds.

The nature of an urban street gang is exploitative. The cuckooing of vulnerable individuals and grooming of young people into county lines are just two examples. This blog looks specifically at gang exploitation of women and girls; victims of violence and sexual exploitation, female family members and the girls who perpetrate violence. Notably, there is little evidence of gangs comprising of all female members, so we will look at women and girls holding positions in male groups.

Women and girls from all backgrounds and ages can be targeted by gangs, and can be both the perpetrators and victims of violence. Though it may be difficult to pinpoint a shared experience in their past, many do share the feeling of fear and anxiety from violence, intimidation and sexual assault whilst gang-involved. The Children’s Commissioner (2017) describes a hierarchy of females in the gang structure, which comprises of three main levels.

The highest level of hierarchy for a female involved in gangs can be described as a “friendship with the males in the group”. It is less exploitative than other female roles and is not characterised by a sexual relationship. Didsley and Liddle (2016) suggest that women can hold skills that are beneficial to a gang’s agenda, therefore allowing them to progress within the group. Such a skill might include the low likelihood of being stopped and searched, benefitting the movement of drugs and weapons. In fact, a study conducted by Didsley, and Liddle (2016) found that 97% of participating females stated they are ‘sometimes or often’ asked to carry items on behalf of the gang. Women fighting other women as retaliation to rival gangs or punishment within their own group is also considered a skillful asset and might be one reason they can rise the ranks.

A common misconception is that women and girls who share a child with a male gang member sometimes receive a level of protection with the gang. In reality, it’s often seen that these females are subjected to coercive control, domestic violence, and punishment within the group. Not only are they expected to have a loyalty to their partner and could face severe consequences if they are deemed untrustworthy or disloyal, but they are expected to take part in criminal activities. There is also research to suggest that male gang members often disagree as to how much protection should be afforded to a partner or mother to their child. In some instances, girlfriends, sisters, and mothers can be targeted by rival gangs as punishment for a gang member’s perceived wrongdoing. As such, even if a female is not gang-involved, but has a family member who is, she is at risk of violence.

The females most at risk of violence and exploitation from gang members are those at the bottom of the hierarchy, described by Children’s Commissioner (2017) as ‘link girls’. These girls are perceived by male members as disposable, and their sole purpose is to service the needs of their male counterparts. These girls are often subject to sexual assault and rape by one or multiple gang members. Research suggests that the women and girls in this position often have an emotional dependency to one of the males in the group. Sexual violence against women and girls can be used, with or without the use of technology (such as videos), to humiliate or control. Furthermore, these females can be both the victims and perpetrators of violence, and often recruit other girls for this role to minimise their own exploitation.

  • Evidence suggests females are targeted by gangs for different purposes and from various backgrounds, i.e., a female with no previous criminal convictions is less likely to be stopped and searched when carrying weapons.
  • Women and girls often report feeling unable to contact services for support or report a crime. Barriers can include: the consensus between peers that they are deserving/expectant for such treatment, threats of further violence, or knowing which services to turn to.
  • There needs to be a stronger focus in the education and criminal justice system on the female role in gangs, the understanding of consent, victim impact and exploitation.