On the afternoon of Saturday 22 March, a beautiful 15-year-old girl was shot dead in a house in Hackey. Three male teenagers were arrested nearby for the killing of Shereka Marsh. At almost exactly the same time, The Centre for Social Justice was finalising a press release for its long-awaited report, Tackling Exploitation of Girls by Gangs; a paper that exposes the “desperate lives” led by some girls in which “rape is used as a weapon and carrying drugs and guns is seen as normal”.
It is too early to say whether Shereka’s death was gang-related. We don’t yet know how or why the shot was fired; it might have been an accident. One thing, though, is clear: a 15-year-old girl was in the same room as a loaded gun.
We have become aware of – almost immune to – the impact of gangs, guns and drugs on teenage boys in our communities. We turn the pages blithely as newspaper headlines scream of gang-related stabbings in Brixton, confused shootings in Tottenham. Often, horrific acts of violence are not even covered in our broadsheets or on TV. They are not news; they’re just a way of life for many teenagers who carry knives for protection and who can get hold of a gun for £100. We watch films like Kidulthood, TV series like Top Boy andThe Wire – and we nod, cringing, as we accept the brutal reality for thousands of young men. But girls? In gangs? Until now, it has barely crossed our minds. We like to think it doesn’t happen.
Tragically, it happens. As research for my latest novel, I spent much of the past two years talking to young women on the fringes of our society, whose lives are governed by fear, insecurity and desperation to ‘belong’. Girls are at risk, just like their male counterparts, but we don’t tend to notice, as their pain is less conspicuous.
‘Girls in gangs’ is a misnomer. In the majority of cases, girls do not set up gangs of their own. Nor do girls play the same role in a gang as a teenage boy, who might be recruited by an ‘elder’ and promoted through the ranks as he gets more involved (carrying drugs and weapons, carrying out crimes on the elders’ behalf). As the think tank’s report reveals, the involvement of girls in gangs is less obvious. It takes on many guises.
Girls are used as bait in stand-offs with men from rival gangs. They are ‘owned’ by so-called boyfriends who ask them to carry knives, guns and drugs on their person or in pushchairs. Sexual abuse is commonplace; sex is just one of the commodities a girl is expected to provide. Rape of a man’s girl is used as a tool of retribution by rival gang members. ‘DSN’ is the rule. Don’t Say Nothing. It’s the rule that keeps men protected and young women at risk. If you’re raped or attacked, keep it to yourself or you suffer the consequences. Girls are used, exploited, rejected – and occasionally, caught in the crossfire.
So, now we’re aware. It’s an important first step. If we act on this awareness, then perhaps Shereka’s loss of life will not be entirely in vain.
But what form should this action take? In its report, the Centre for Social Justice urges Government to “map the problem” to allow better intervention work. It wants to see youth workers placed in major trauma units at hospitals in gang-affected areas to find members. It calls for police to team up with voluntary organisations to help the girlfriends of gang members who are arrested or imprisoned to exit gang life.
These are solutions in part, but they only tackle the symptoms of this epidemic; not the causes. Implemented on their own, these initiatives will fail, just as ‘amnesty boxes’ for knives have failed in the past because they don’t tackle the reason young people carry knives in the first place.
Put yourself in the shoes of a 16-year-old girl who has fallen into a vicious cycle of low self-esteem and reliance on her boyfriend or gang for support and validation. When a youth worker approaches you in the hospital as a close so-called friend fights for his life in A&E, will you be inclined to see their point of view and walk away from the man you think you love? When a social worker tries to convince you that there is an alternative to the only lifestyle you know, while your man is doing time in the ‘pen’, will you suddenly decide to turn your life around?
We need to tackle the root causes. We need to address the complex set of issues that cause girls to get involved in this life in the first place: low self-esteem, educational failure, instability, abuse and neglect, family breakdown, the lack of perceived opportunities elsewhere versus the apparent material and emotional reward of the gang lifestyle… the need to be part of an alternative ‘family’. This is not an exhaustive list. There is a different answer for every girl. As Patrick Regan, chief executive of urban youth charity XLP, says: “The biggest issue with girls in gangs is that we simply don’t know the full extent of the problem.” We don’t know how many girls are involved and we don’t fully understand their reasons. But we need to try. We need to do more to help girls at risk – before they get involved.
The good news is that much of this work is already underway, thanks to many excellent charities that deliver effective and proactive initiatives despite hefty cuts to their budgets.Beleve UK, for example, runs schemes that help young women choose work over unemployment, not just via training and experience but by boosting girls’ confidence and providing much-needed opportunities to ‘unburden’ after difficult pasts. One Big Community is a London-wide, youth-led coalition that strives to eradicate violence in our communities from the grass-roots up. XLP runs projects across the city in various forms including mentoring, training and drop-in events.
This week’s report should provide a springboard for action – but the action doesn’t stop at these recommendations. Government needs to take this issue seriously and invest in our young people’s futures, via charities that understand the people involved.
We need to make guns redundant and we need to see an end to the tragic deaths of teenage girls – as well as boys.
This article originally appeared on Huffington Post. Polly Courtney is author of Feral Youth, the story of the London Riots through the eyes of a 15-year-old girl. She will be speaking at the Wall of Silence debate at City Hall on 16th April as part of the One Big Community initiative. She is also an ambassador for Beleve UK.