Scroll to the bottom for a video interview with policy advisor of the Office of the Children's Commissioner Carlene Firmin
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Forced to stash guns or carry drugs for their boyfriends. Pressured into giving gang members sexual favours. Raped because of a dispute between rival crews.
Many of the thousands of women linked to Britain's street gangs – through blood or friendship – are at risk of violence, sexual exploitation and of being coerced into offending, yet the dangers they face often go unrecognised, an expert said.
Carlene Firmin has spent years interviewing sisters, mothers, girlfriends and friends of gang members in an effort to document the impact of gang violence in Britain's cities on women and girls across the country.
Her research has helped lift the lid on a hidden world.
Some of the young women Firmin interviewed were in police custody – pressured into carrying drugs or holding firearms for boyfriends or brothers, because girls are less likely to be stopped and searched by police.
"When they are searched, that's when they're in trouble. That's generally when they take the punishment rather than tell anybody who they were holding these things for," said Firmin, principal policy advisor to the Office of the Children's Commissioner, a body set up to promote and protect the rights of children in England.
Another major risk is sexual exploitation – a young woman being passed around a gang "just because that's what she's there for" or offering sex in exchange for cocaine, she told Thomson Reuters Foundation in a recent interview.
In Firmin's 2011 "This is it. This is my life..." report on the lives of women caught up in gang violence, a 19-year-old from Manchester in northern England described being treated like the property of the gang.
"Things what X done to me [sic], pinned me to the couch and had sex with me, and his friends have filmed it on their phones and they've all had copies of it, and you learn to feel numb, when they're hitting ya and doing things to ya, you learn to feel numb," she said.
Rape and domestic violence were cited as other threats. "If he (a gang member) does something wrong, in order to get back at him rivals will rape his sister or rape his mother or rape his girlfriend," Firmin said, adding that these attacks often take place when a gang member is in custody. If rivals were unable to touch him, they would go for the women in his life instead.
Mothers are also affected. They told Firmin about their homes being firebombed or their doors kicked in by rival gang members searching for drugs. The settling of scores would often happen when their sons were out of reach in prison.
"There's a whole range of experiences plus ongoing trauma of witnessing violence and abuse on a regular basis. Domestic abuse was also discussed – mothers being hit by their sons and also sisters experiencing domestic abuse," she added.
What was striking about Firmin's report was the way in which women and girls spoke with acceptance and frustration in equal measure of their lot, "as if they had no other option than to suffer as both victims and perpetrators of violence".
Until a couple of years ago, government strategies to tackle gang violence largely ignored women and girls despite the damage being done to them.
But in 2011, after riots sparked by the police shooting of a man in London with suspected links to local gangs, the government announced new measures to end gang violence and pledged 1.2 million pounds to improving services for young victims of sexual violence, with a special focus on girls and young women caught up in gang-related rape and abuse.
Firmin said that despite changes in government policy, professionals still miss signs of gang-related sexual exploitation – partly because it has been hidden for so long, partly because high-profile cases involving aging celebrities or sex grooming rings have highlighted other types of sexual exploitation.
In addition, the authorities may fail to identify victims of sexual exploitation by a gang because their connection to its members or a record of offending often means they are not seen as "ideal victims", Firmin said. Deep mistrust of the police also deters women from reporting abuse.
One solution to identifying girls who are at risk is to map every single one of them, according to the Office of the Children's Commissioner.
Last year it recommended that all police forces should work with agencies and specialists to log information on the girls and young women linked to gang members to assess their risk of sexual exploitation.
"If you were to map young women in advance you'd be able to see which ones were more vulnerable than others," Firmin said. "Not every young woman linked to a gang is at risk of sexual exploitation and not every young woman linked to a gang is at risk at all. But we don't know that until we map them."
Tackling sexual exploitation in gangs also requires a wider debate about consent and young people's understanding of it, Firmin said. For example, do young women really have a choice when they are told they have the option of either having sex with gang members or getting beaten up by them?
"We would say that wasn't consent but for them, it's within the confines of their lived experience," Firmin said.
"There's a whole range of issues and problems that we have with actually understanding choice, freedom, consent and in that particular context, consent can just become meaningless because it's almost a means of survival."