In the Media

At last, a gang strategy that acknowledges the presence of girls

PUBLISHED November 8, 2011

Sexually exploited, coerced to hold firearms and drugs, and threatened to provide alibis, gang-affected girls have been abused and perpetrated crimes under the radar. Until now Of the hundreds of stories I was told over five years when interviewing women and girls affected by gang violence and serious youth violence, Julie's will always stay with me. "To make up for the day before when he's battered me, he'll come back with ?500 to ?600 worth of clothes ? a whole new wardrobe, new shoes ? and you're thinking, I can't ever escape this. This is gonna be my life for ever. And it's scary. I thought the only way I would ever get out of it would be to kill myself. I wanted it. Up until two months ago, the only thing I regretted about that overdose was that it didn't work." Julie (not her real name), 20, was speaking to me last year and recounting six years of gang association. She had been abused and injured physically, sexually, emotionally and mentally by two gang-associated boyfriends throughout her teenage years. It wasn't until she tried to commit suicide for the second time that she was taken into an adult service for violence against women and supported to recover. Julie had been in contact with a range of services during her short life: youth offending services, social services, education, sexual health, the police, housing, drug and alcohol misuse, to name a few. She was known as a troublesome teenager but her gang-association had never been identified. Why would it: she was a girl. It is not often that you see stark progress in social policy. Change can be incremental, cautious and frustrating. Services have historically struggled to identify and respond to the impact of gang violence on women and girls. Raped and sexually exploited, coerced to hold firearms and drugs, threatened to provide alibis, and lured by the belief that they will be protected and cared for, gang-affected girls have been abused ? and have perpetrated crimes ? under the radar. With girls seen as a prop, rather than as integral to the causes and consequences of youth violence, some professionals and decision makers have focused activity on males, who are perceived as "central" to all solutions. Gang violence projects designed to work with men and boys certainly left some professionals I met feeling ill-equipped to keep girls safe. But following last week's publication of Theresa May's strategy to end gang and youth violence , it is evident that the tide could be changing. The plan features specific actions for responding to girls' victimisation and offending; committing funding to developing specialist services; and recognising the support needed, for boys and girls, to challenge the stereotypes of masculinity that can underpin the violent control and coercion in gang contexts. The translation of girls' voices from research into policy has begun, and professionals must ensure it is not lost in operation. To meet the vision outlined , council and police authority areas will be expected to consider whether their risk assessments for identifying gang-affected children enable them to find girls in danger, question if services are appropriate, and begin to collect data on gang-associated females. The challenge for professionals working with young people and violence against women is to convert this strategic position into an operational reality. For some professionals there will be a steep learning curve to build expertise and understand the gender and age specific needs of gang-affected young women. Support through training and professional partnerships will be required to bolster the confidence and capacity of practitioners. But if girls can be identified, helped to recover and their involvement in serious youth violence prevented, lives could be saved. ? Carlene Firmin is a principal policy adviser at the Office of the Children's Commissioner for England. She is writing in a personal capacity. Gangs Young people Youth justice Child protection Children Social care Carlene Firmin © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds