Females may be affiliated to gangs as members in their own right or as girlfriends, relatives or friends of gang members.
How are girls and young women involved?
Girls and young women can play a variety of roles in gangs:
- They may be involved with gangs as accomplices to male gang members in drug smuggling, money laundering, counterfeiting, credit card theft, fencing of stolen property, and other offences.
- They may be exploited by male gang members to participate in the sex trade or are shared as sexual objects within the gang.
- Females may form or join an all-female gang (either independently or as a sub-set of a male dominated gang) with a purpose to commit serious violence and crime.
While some female gang members are active participants in serious crime and violence, UK research has exposed widespread sexual abuse of gang- involved females, with reports of girls being seen as sexual objects or entertainment for gang members and subjected to severe sexual assault, coercion and degradation.
Sexual violence is a specific risk to young female gang members or young women on the periphery of gang involvement. Girls involved with gangs can be particularly vulnerable to mental health problems resulting from sexual and intimate partner violence along with the psychological impacts of witnessing violence.
Sexual violence is one of the most severe forms of trauma and its effects on mental health have been widely studied. Exposure to sexual violence can cause multiple long-lasting negative outcomes, including depression, cognitive disturbances (e.g. low self-esteem or symptoms of helplessness), panic and anxiety disorders, suicidality and self-harming behaviours.
For many gang-affiliated girls, exposure to violence begins at home. Girls with limited family support may be attracted to gangs or gang-affiliated men for status and protection, yet those who have grown up with abuse and domestic violence may be conditioned to tolerate abuse.
Trauma-based mental health services may be particularly important for female gang members, along with gender-sensitive responses that acknowledge the importance of positive relationships and improved self-esteem as an exit from crime and violence.
Front-line agencies that work with young women and girls should be aware of the risk indicators of gang association and gender- based violence, understand the additional complexities that this presents, and provide holistic support that addresses the multiplicity of girls' experiences, risks and needs.
Further reading and information
Girls and Gangs - XLP. Centre for Social Justice Criminal Justice Programme. This short paper again calls on the Government to present a coherent, far-sighted programme to tackle the UK's gang problem. In doing so it highlights the plight of girls and young women associated with gangs who are often marginalised in discussion of these issues.
"I thought I was the only one. The only one in the world". The Office of the Children's Commissioner's inquiry in to child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups: interim report. Berelowitz, S. et al (2012) London: Office of the Children's Commissioner.
"It's wrong-but you get used to it" is a qualitative study of gang-associated sexual violence towards, and exploitation of, young people in England. A report commissioned by the Office of the Children's Commissioner's Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Gangs and Groups.
Research into gang-associated sexual exploitation and sexual violence: interim report.
Beckett, H. et al (2012). Luton: University of Bedfordshire.
The London Child Sexual Exploitation Operating Protocol (2014) developed by the Metropolitan Police Service and used across London.
This is it. This is my life... The Female Voice in Violence Project. Final report: ROTA (March 2011)