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We must identify girls at risk from gangs

When I met Rita she was 17 and in custody for the 13th time. Her offending had escalated from moped theft and “antisocial” behaviour with boys when she was 11, through to firearms possession. She had been self-harming for the past three years, had contracted chlamydia, was malnourished, had developed an addiction to crack cocaine, and was being sexually exploited by the street gang to whom she was associated.

This had not happened to Rita overnight. It was the consequence of years of exploitation by her male peers, isolation from her friends, exclusion from school, and being sexually abused by a family member when she was eight years old. From a young age, a myriad of professionals had opportunities to intervene and protect Rita, but, instead, her risk snowballed.

A report published this week by the Centre for Mental Health demonstrates that Rita’s case is not a one-off. The report is based on data from 8,000 10- to 18-year-olds, who, following their arrest between August 2011 and November 2012, were screened for 29 different risk factors and health issues, such as family conflict, homelessness and victimisation, as part of a study to identify the most appropriate interventions. The screening process was a pilot run in 37 areas of England. Gang-involved girls were found to be over nine times more likely to exhibit 19 or more of these risk factors than the other young people screened.

Gang-involved girls navigate harmful environments and relationships. According to the study, young women who had “histories of parental imprisonment, poor parental mental health, parental substance misuse, or neglect” were three to five times more likely to be gang-involved than other girls who were screened. In addition, they were three times more likely to be identified as victims of sexual abuse and four times more likely to have been excluded from school.

The same girls were also more likely to have difficulties with their physical and mental health and wellbeing than other young people screened. Like Rita, 30% were reported to be self-harming or at risk of suicide, and were over three times more likely to have sexual health needs.

When public attention is focused on the horrendous accounts of groups of adult men sexually exploiting girls around the country, it is easy to forget about girls and young women who are at risk from their peers. The information provided clearly demonstrates that risk can be present in homes, peer groups, schools, neighbourhoods and in wider society, which increases the vulnerability of girls to street gangs. This report provides a statistical backdrop to the accounts given to me by hundreds of women and girls during the Female Voice in Violence project; now it is time to turn the stories and figures into action.

From preventing vulnerability, to the identification of girls linked to gangs, through to the programmes delivered to support them, and routes of safety that are offered, our processes need to be gender-specific. This groundbreaking report throws into sharp relief the impact of gang-association and the opportunities that exist to intervene across a young woman’s lifetime. Of the girls that were screened, 73% engaged with an intervention that was offered to them. It is critical that all agencies who work with girls and young women use the evidence to mobilise and evaluate interventions that will better identify and protect those involved with gangs.