This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
You hear the word gangs and what do you think? Knives, council estates, drugs, and weapon dogs hanging by their teeth from park swings. It's likely that the images flooding your mind right now are fairly gender-specific. When it comes to gangs and gang activity, girls aren't usually the first thing people think of.
And yet there's been a marked increase in girls being recruited into UK gangs over the past decade, an increase that in 2013 prompted the Mayor's Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC) to devise a strategic framework "to confront this serious problem which until recently has received very little attention."
The exact numbers that make up this "serious problem" are still vague. Even the report itself admits it's "not intended to be a prescriptive and definitive guide," and that "approaches to girls and gangs are still in the early stages."
The ambiguity behind the stats is largely due to the lack of female-centric research available. Looking through the myriad reports on gang crime, edging unsurely around the subject of girls and young women, it's easy to wonder whether female gang members are not just some strange mythical creature, conjured up for the sake of tabloid sensationalism to sell a few more papers.
But this is changing: One of the most comprehensive reports to date has been undertaken by the University of Bedfordshire. The report, contained in two parts, underlines exactly how neglected the statistical research into girls in gangs is. Lead researcher Dr. Helen Beckett explains this omission by noting how the collection of data tends to focus almost exclusively on "gang nominals" (meaning those suspected of gang involvement and placed on a borough-specific gang matrix, or "mapping system"), all of whom tend to be male.
These gang-affiliated girls—the ones who haven't been charged with a criminal offense and where no child protection event has been reported—are known by the authorities as "the invisible ones"; the statutory sectors can't get involved and they essentially remain trapped in a cycle of abuse.
Suffering from a whole range of factors (detailed in the Centre for Mental Health's 2013 report: A Need to Belong), including self-esteem and mental health issues, behavioral problems, and physically/sexually abusive backgrounds, they will be groomed or "gassed up" into joining gangs for the sense of belonging and refuge they provide. Recruited for various reasons—for sex, as drugs and weapon carriers, as "honeytraps"—their roles will be largely dependent on their relation to a male member of the gang. The lowest in the gang hierarchy, and the ones most at risk, are known as "links" (or "groupies" or "pass-around"). These will generally be the girls with the lowest self-esteem, the most desperate to belong, the ones without any formal status, no familial ties or long-term relationship within the gang to protect them.
The St Giles Trust is a group attempting to provide a platform for these vulnerable girls by giving them access to people they can relate to—women and men who've grown up and witnessed the same things as they have, who've been involved in gangs themselves. First established as a soup kitchen in 1962, where it provided meals straight out of the crypt of the local church, one third of the staff are ex-offenders themselves. They also happen to run the SOS Project—London's largest gang intervention scheme.
I met up with SOS Senior Caseworkers Antonia Ejoh-Steer and Toni Harriott. Toni's also the founder of the Expect Respect Project, a drop-in center that supports vulnerable teenage girls and young women most at risk of sexual exploitation and gang-related violence. We sat down to talk about the girls who find themselves caught up in London's gang culture.
VICE: How do you manage to reach out to these young girls?
Toni Harriott: We go into schools, youth services, YOTs—that's Youth Offending Teams—and run workshops. I've been doing girls in gangs work a long time with St Giles, but the focus on female-only workshops has only been in the last year-and-a-half. Boy's issues tend to outshine what's going on for the girls—if there's four stabbings in an area, all boys, and one girl's been raped, where do you think all the resources are gonna go? Into the boys.
That's why I started the ER [Expect Respect] project. We show them how to communicate effectively with each other in confrontation, expressing their emotions; a lot of them don't know how and it comes out very angry, very negative.
The main focus is female empowerment. A part of that is showing what sexual exploitation looks like, because a lot of the girls we come across are being exploited and they don't even realize.
And what about the kind of roles these girls play in the gangs?
Antonia Ejoh-Steer: Girls are quite powerful in gangs, 'cause they've got big responsibilities. I mean, they might be the ones carrying the weapons—they're less likely to get stop and searched. They could be holding the drugs. So they might not be on the road, but they play a big part… We've met girls that are equal to the men.
Toni: Within the gang there's different types of girls, right? You get the guys that wanna go for what they describe as a "good girl." She's probably working, hasn't got a criminal record; she'll get the rentals, hold the drugs, move certain things for them. They'll put their stuff in her house 'cause it's a safe house. If you've got every man coming in your house, that's not a safe house. If you've got someone hiding drugs you don't want it in a house where like ten people be in and out every day. So they pick what girls they want for what type of role they play in the gang, but they're both being exploited.
It's important to understand that we are dealing with young girls—children, not adults. They've suffered from post-traumatic stress because of what they've seen and what they're going through—some of the girls we've worked with have witnessed their friends get stabbed on a weekly basis. They're knowing 'bout stabbings going on. They're living in a perpetual state of fear and they've got all that teenage angst as well: put that lot together and you've got a ticking time bomb. Then it becomes about how you defuse that young person, and the tools you use.
What kind of age would you try and do this defusing?
Toni: My son's three and I speak to him about understanding empathy… Early intervention is the most important thing. If you've planted that seed from a very young age, they're forewarned, it helps them make more informed decisions. But if we don't start telling them from a young age, then they're walking through this world blind.
What about policies for protecting the girls who've been kicked out of home?
Antonia: All-female hostels, they don't exist any more, and that's needed…
Toni: It's a mistake to put a vulnerable female in a hostel where there are guys with similar backgrounds to the ones who've exploited her in the past. At the end of the day, that young person is vulnerable and you're putting them in a worse situation. If they haven't got the right type of support, what's going to happen to them?
Many of the processes in place fail to accommodate open discussion, especially with the girls—mothers and their daughters. With ER we try and focus on these relationships, strengthening that bond. Because as a girl, if you haven't got that bond with your mum then you'll look elsewhere, you'll make bad decisions, and you'll isolate yourself.
A lot of the time girls say when they're in these exploitative situations, "My mum don't really understand me, my family don't care, no one really listens," and the guy's telling them, "I'll listen to you, I care about you, I'm there for you."
Toni: That's exactly what it is. And as a parent you have to make an effort to get to know your children, to have those sorts of dialogue with your children.
You have to make more of an effort to separate them from social networking as well. Because they're in their own world and young people don't always understand that once you've shared images or done things on camera, it's almost impossible to stop that content being shared.
It's a relatively new form of exploitation…
Toni: Right, and it's a platform parents just aren't clued-up on. It's a different type of world out there—girls can be exploited by not just one guy but many, and it can be really difficult to realize what's happening till it's too late.
What we tell our young girls is at the end of the day, be strong enough to say no. As a group of girls, you have to be united and you have to be strong. But then equally we tell the young boys: "Who wants to be number nine out of ten guys that's sleeping with one girl? What type of life… what type of mentality is that?"
And it's not just the boys exploiting the girls, right?
Toni: We've worked with cases where girls have set up other girls and taken them to places where they're exploited, raped. Girls will actually know that there's boys in a house; a main boy will be like, "You got any girls for me?" and they'll go out and say to a girl, "Yeah man, there's a nice party going on, it's gonna be loud and there's gonna be loadsa drink." They get there: It's them and 20 men in one room and the girl that's brought 'em there is saying "bye" and left the girl in that room.
So how do you manage to tackle all these problems?
Toni: I think with the girls they just need to be empowered. They need to feel like they don't need the love of a man to make them feel something about themselves… The problem is the media gives a perception that to be accepted, to be successful, you need to use your sexuality, you need to dress and act a certain way, be a certain weight. That's not reality. Most young girls we work with don't even know who to look to as a role model, because it's not explained to them what it's like to aspire to be like someone, or to even have aspirations.
The situation we're witnessing here is desperate: We got the boys killing each other and we got the girls being abused and debased by these young men. As a parent, as a human being, I'm gonna try my hardest to not let that happen to my young people; try to change their mindset and give them a little bit of aspiration in their life. So that when they're in their twenties, thirties, they ain't got four kids round them, four different baby father, man in jail, boyfriend dead, all them things… That's not the life. It's not necessary. We come from a society where that shouldn't happen, but we're doing it to our young children, and our young children are doing it to each other. And as a society, we have to be more responsible for them.
Follow Alun Evans on Twitter.