We must acknowledge the hidden role of gang associated girls
We cannot address the issue of gang violence by failing to recognise that girls are involved, writes Florence Eshalomi MP. | PA Images
Young women and girls are ignored as victims of gang related violence. We need to invest in solutions based on the reality of female involvement or we risk dealing with only part of the problem.
When you look at the issue of youth violence and gangs, the focus is always on young men. We ignore the young women and girls who are involved not as gang members but more often as victims of gang related violence.
I have been working to try and understand the specific risks that gang associated girls are vulnerable to. We cannot address the issue of gang violence by failing to recognise that girls are involved. Without a full understanding of the criminality, exploitation and behavioural patterns, we risk treating the symptoms rather than helping some of the most vulnerable women in society.
It’s not surprising that the focus is on young men. Males make up 99.8% of the Metropolitan Police Service’s Gangs Matrix, they carry out around one in ten registered knife crime offences, and they are more likely to be victims of knife crime than women. But dig a little deeper into these statistics and you’ll find a hidden group of gang associated girls who play an important role in the operations of gang exploitation.
Young women and girls were being deployed in ‘county lines’ operations as they were less likely to be stopped by police
The Gangs Matrix lists only six females. But in February, the Children’s Commissioner estimated that 2,290 girls were associated with gangs in England (which is about 34% of all gang associated children). And when I sent freedom of information requests to all London councils, I found that 1,049 women and girls had identified gang association as a factor in assessments by their children’s services department. So, we know that the data is patchy at best.
The lack of data means that we don’t know how many girls are involved, and importantly what support they need to turn their lives around.
A recent report from the charity Hestia found that young women and girls were being deployed in ‘county lines’ (cross border drugs) operations as they were less likely to be stopped by police, and exploitative romantic relationships were used to lure them into carrying out dangerous activities including storing and transporting drugs, cash and weapons.
Following the nation-wide lockdown due to Covid, gangs were forced to adapt their ways of operating. Barnardo’s frontline workers reported seeing an increase in online coercion and recruitment of girls, the use of apps to coordinate drug runs on daily walks or ‘socially distanced’ park meet ups, and the use of fake key worker ID’s to enable travel more freely.
The charity Redthread, which works with young people admitted to hospital trauma centres, has seen an increase in weapons related injuries against girls since the lockdown in March, which suggests their increased involvement in frontline activities.
There are many excellent support services for young men and boys that help them get away from violence, but these services are not appropriate for females
If we want to get to grips with this issue, we need to adopt a gendered and intersectionality approach. We know that when girls associate with gangs, they undertake different activities, take different risks, and experience trauma differently. So, we need to understand – and document - the issues they face, and adopt a more tailored, public health approach to support.
There are many excellent support services for young men and boys that help them get away from violence, but these services are not appropriate for females, and few councils commission services exclusively aimed at girls.
All of us want to see an end to the criminal exploitation of all vulnerable young people by gangs. But we need to invest in solutions based on the reality of female involvement. Otherwise we risk dealing with only part of the problem - and these girls will continue to suffer, end up in prison, or even lose their lives.
Florence Eshalomi is the Labour MP for Vauxhall.