When most people think about gang members they think of men. While men still make up the majority of gangs, more females are getting involved with gangs every day, often at a very young age. In fact, according to the National Youth Violence Prevention Center, a quarter of all gang members are between the ages of 15-17, and the average age of all gang members is just 17-18!
Roles of Girls in Gangs
Historically, females have played small roles in gangs, like hiding weapons, driving getaway cars or covering from their male counterparts. Some were simply associated with the gang as a girlfriend, sister or relative and kept around to do menial jobs. Others were sent out to the streets to do the dirty and dangerous work of spying on rival gangs.
However in recent years the roles of females in gangs are becoming more and more violent. According to the National Crime Prevention Council, in the last ten years, the number of violent crimes committed by females under the age of 22 has risen over 300 percent. Nowadays, reports show that 90% of girls in gangs have been in a gang fight, 79% carry concealed weapons and 69% have attacked someone with a weapon to cause serious injury.
Just as males are, females are required to go through initiation before they’re accepted into the gang. Some are told how they will be initiated and some get to choose, but either way it’s a rough, unpleasant and often traumatic experience. Like males, a female may be “jumped-in” meaning she is beaten by various gang members. On the other hand, a female may also be “sexed-in” by having sex with multiple gang members, often while the rest of the gang watches. Females who are “jumped-in” typically gain more respect by other gang members, especially other female members. Females who are “sexed-in” are simply seen as sex toys and it is often their “job” to help pay debts to rival gangs by prostituting themselves.
Regardless of how they are initiated, females are often sent out into the street to collect drugs, money or whatever is owed to the gang because they are less conspicuous to law enforcement and have better “hiding spots” for drugs and weapons. This in an incredibly dangerous job and often leads to violent ends.
Why do girls join gangs?
Perhaps the most common underlying factor that leads females or males to become involved with a gang is a difficult home life. Many females who are actively involved with a gang say that they “come from a broken, dysfunctional and often abusive home” and many have at least one parent in prison (Source). These individuals are searching for a sense of belonging and safety that they believe a gang can provide – essentially these girls are looking for a family. Others are searching for respect, power and self-esteem that they believe comes with gang membership. Most of the time they don’t realize what they’re getting themselves into. On the other hand, many females become involved in gangs due to their family’s affiliation with that gang. Many youth entering their teen years are expected or even forced to join a certain gang when they reach a certain age. It’s a lifestyle that is expected and accepted.
Certain risk factors exist that predict gang-related behaviors for girls. The top three risk factors include poor school performance and/or learning disabilities, lack of positive activities in or out of school, and a history of sexual abuse and victimization (Source). Others include family dysfunction, low income, early drug use and early sexual activity (Source).
To combat these risk factors, many prevention programs have been put into place that provide mentoring, recreational opportunities and education assistance for youth at risk of getting involved with gangs. Other programs, like Excelsior, help youth overcome traumatic experiences associated with gang involvement and work with them to prevent a return to gang life. When working with youth at risk for gang involvement, therapists pay close attention to those risk factors that predict gang involvement. Specifically, therapists may work with youth on improving self-esteem and dealing with feelings of abandonment. Therapists often consider family dynamics, sometimes even working with both the family and the youth together. Additionally, therapists often facilitates the search for a job or other extracurricular activity that the youth can become involved with to keep them busy and surrounded by positive influences.