According to many authorities including sociologists, the Department of Justice, and news organizations, like CNN and the Los Angeles Times, female gang participation is now on the rise. Not only is it on the rise, but female gang members are displaying more violent behavior. In order to protect female youth from this growing problem, it is important to find the underlying causes that attract youth to join gangs and to find solutions to prevent and intervene in the lives of active and potential female gang members.
This paper will explore adolescent female participation in gangs. For the purpose of this paper, gangs are defined as "a band or group of persons" who participate in illegal or socially unacceptable activity (Webster's Dictionary 74). This paper will delve into the reasons why girls choose to become gang members. It will then describe various solutions proposed to prevent girls from joining gangs and other solutions that may help existing gang members abandon gang activity for a more positive lifestyle.
Female participation in gangs is not a new phenomenon. In fact, "girls have been a part of gangs since the earliest accounts from New York in the early 1800s" (Campbell 166). However, throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, female gang activity has seen the sharpest increase in participation, especially in comparison to boys. For example, a study found that there had been a, "50 percent increase in serious crimes by teenage gins between 1968 and 1974, compared to a 10 percent increase for boys" (CASA Website). In addition, arrests of girls under 18 for violent crimes rose 393 percent between 1960 and 1978, compared to 82 percent for boys" (CASA Website). Also, compared to 1950, "youth gangs of the 1980's and 1990's are more numerous, more prevalent, and more violent than in the 1950's, probably more than at any time in the country's history" (Miller 263). Now that female participation in gangs and violence is apparently on the rise, and such activity has become increasingly violent, it is important to look at current research that examines this problem and methods of prevention.
According to research on female gang members, poor home life, a search for an identity, and a search for social interaction and belonging are the main reasons girls join gangs. In poor urban areas, "the home lives of gang girls are marked frequently by breakdown and dysfunction, at worst resulting in physical and sexual abuse" (Campbell 175). Many girls who do not have a loving home or support structure seek it outside of the home in hopes that the gang will be their surrogate family. This is exemplified in the observation that, "gang members refer to one another as 'sisters' or 'homegirls" and to the gangng as a 'family'... which conjure the sense of belonging and identification" (Campbell 175). This sense of a familial relationship may also serve to increase loyalty among its members. As Campbrll found in her research, "intense in-group loyalty is particularly important to gang members" and this sense of fasmily may be one of the main reasons for such faithful loyalty (Campbell 175).
In addition to seeking a family, these girls search for a sense of identity and have a need for group support and cohesiveness, which they seek to find in gangs (Harris 114). According to Campbells research, "the girls often speak of themsleves as loners' before joining the gang, barely connected to their schoolmates or to neighborhood peer groups" (Campbell 175). In addition, "gangs fill socialization voids and offer attachments, commitments, involvements, and beliefs for young people in need of affiliation and achievement' (Vigil 94). All of these 'socialization voids' are found in their homes and gangs fill these voids and meet the needs that the parents do not or cannot.
Girls also join gangs for comradeship. According to Campbell, the most prominent reason girls join is for friendship and fun. "More than anything else gang membership is seen as fun. Stories are told and retold of... crazy behavior and wild parties" (Campbell 176). Gangs are often social organizations that provide friendship and social networks just as, for example, joining a sorority provides similar friendship and social aspects.
Another reason girls may participate in gangs is economic need. In our capitalistic society, joining a gang becomes a method of survival for some where the informal economy of selling drugs "may be seen as the only alternative to welfare and poverty" (Burns-Kitchen 3). The research of Burns-Kitchen reveals that "underclass Black women use a variety of economic means to meet the survival needs of their family," including selling drugs to pay the bills (Burns-Kitchen IV).
In addition, where economic development is lacking, the environment of poverty causes some to view selling drugs as the only way to succeed economically. The Barrios and Ghettos are economically barren terrains that are relatively receptive to these new business interests such as drug trafficking. "Indeed, given the long and continuing neglect of these communities, many consider these new opportunities as their best shot for success 'American style"' (Burns-Kitchen 17). The business element of gang drug dealing is a very potent foe. "drugs have taken street gangs and given them the capability and power to become social institutions" (Maxson 114). Selling drugs becomes a "last resort" for survival and gangs offer a social and economic means of engaging in a profitable enterprise.
Social class also plays a role in female gang participation. As a result of "the powerlessness of underclass membership, the gang represents for its members an idealized collective solution to the bleak future that awaits" (Campbell 173). As a part of the underclass, class also plays a role in selling drugs, "within the social strata, the emerging underclass provides potential and willing applicants for gangs and drug dealing (Maxson 114). Poverty seems to play a major role in gang participation and many researchers contend that
deindustrialization and changes in the structure of labor markets have drastically altered the way of life for the urban poor, their families, neighborhoods, and institutions. These structural changes have created a minority underclass, and contemporary gangs may be a 'fraction' of that class (Hagedorn 241).
The poverty levels of the underclass cause gangs to be a symbol of the hopelessness that pervades the urban ghettos. Female gang members come together to support each other as they struggle to deal with poverty and despair.
Another important reason girls may join gangs is protection. The urban areas in which these girls live can be quite violent. As one teen interviewed by a researcher suggested, others always made threats to her and assumed she was in a gang because of the neighborhood she lived in, so eventually she realized the safest decision would be to join a gang (Padilla 65). Gangs then become a form of protection against other gang members from outside their immediate neighborhood.
Violence also plays a role in the lives of female gang members once they join a gang. One reason that violence is prevalent among gangs, is the protection of their territory. "Territory or turf remains a focal issue not only as a symbolic matter of gang integrity but as an economic base where the gang reserves the right to deal drugs" (Campbell 180). Violence is usually directed at members of rival female gangs as they fight to defend their territory and reputation.
Although girls may participate in violent activities, some researchers have found that much of the violence they claim to participate in is exaggerated in order to bolster their reputations. "As others have noted in connection with male gang members and British soccer fans, much of the violence of these youths occurs in the world of talk rather than of action" (Campbell 177). However in more violent neighborhoods, "having a 'rep' (reputation) is preferable to walking scared, to being powerless. But the rep they work so hard to achieve sets them up as targets for others who are seeking to expand their own reps. There is the abiding fear that 'there's always someone tougher than you"' (Campbell 177).
Female involvement in violent activity is on the rise. Although one author has noted that "although they may use guns, the girls most often are involved in fist or knife fights," recent trends tend to show quite the contrary (Campbell 180). According to recent trends, girls are becoming increasingly involved in violent activity involving guns (CASA Website: Social Work Journal).
IN COMPARISON TO MALE GANGS
Female gangs are different, in some respects, to male gangs. The female group usually comes into existence after the male gang has been established and often takes a feminized version of the male name (Campbell 177). Leadership is very different in female gangs. For instance, "leadership is usually more diffuse than in boys groups. Typically, the members insist there is no leader and that decisions are made democratically. Observation suggests that some girls clearly have more clout than others, but that this usually is not formalized as a leadership role" (Cambell177-178).
On the other hand, male and female gangs also have some similarities. For example, similar to male gangs, some female gangs require a, "formal initiation ceremony... which usually takes the form of a prearranged fistfight between the prospect and an established member. The function of this 'jumping in' is to prove publicly the new girl's ability to fight... she must demonstrate her 'heart' or courage" (Campbell 178).
A girl's racial background is also thought to have an affect on determining whether or not a girl joins a gang. However, the research on this thesis is greatly lacking. One researcher has suggest that "race and class are salient factors in determining gang involvement" (Burns-Kitchen VI). However, it may be argued that class is more of a factor than race. Most street gangs are found in urban areas suffering from poverty so one cannot necessarily correlate race with gang membership because the main factor may actually be social class.
EXITING FROM A GANG
There are a number of factors that influence girls to leave gangs of their own accord. For most girls, leaving the gang occurs at the end of adolescence, if they make it that far. Unfortunately, "some find themselves in juvenile institutions, prisons, or drug treatment centers. An unfortunate few graduate to heroin use, and their dependence on the drug overtakes their loyalty to the gang" (Campbell 181). In addition, "for many it coincides with the birth of a child and the unwelcome realization of the constraints that this entails" (Campbell 181). Others set up stable relationships with men and slip away from the life on the streets (Campbell 181). On the other hand, others are "jumped out" with a severe beating by a number of other gang members which sometimes results in hospitalization (Campbell 181).
Thus, it can be seen that gangs and their activities exact a price for participation. Attempting to leave a gang can sometimes be as dangerous as being in one. The current members appear to see others leaving as abandonment, something they were attempting to get away from, within their biological family, when they joined the gang. Also, many members become members for life and suffer the consequences, often by passing their gang affiliations to their own children.
A number of researchers have arrived at solutions to the gang problem. Such solutions include program strategies such as community organizations, social intervention, opportunities provision, suppression, and organizational development. One study concluded that although suppression and social intervention were the most widely used strategies, strategies of community organization and social opportunities were most effective (Spergel and Curry 308).
A study on organizations and their effectiveness on helping solve the gang problem found solutions similar to those proposed by Father Boyle during his lecture on May 19,1999. The implications of this study are that
more resources alone for police or even human service programs would not contribute much to dealing effectively with the youth gang problem. It is more likely that community mobilization and more resources for and reform of the educational system and the job market, targeted at gang youth or clearly at-risk youth.. would be more effective in the reduction of the gang problem (Spergel and Curry 308).
Providing jobs and improving the educational system are the most promising ways to help solve the gang problem. Father Boyle's experiences in East Los Angeles are proof that such methods are successful. The "Homeboy Industries" program described by Father Boyle was very successful at getting boys out of gangs. This program offered jobs and guidance to male gang members and a similar program for girls may be just as successful. Therefore, the improvement of such social institutions as the educational system and improved job opportunities, targeted at youth gang members or potential youth gang members, seem to be the most appropriate methods to reduce the youth gang problem (Spergel and Curry 308).
"Recent data suggest that the future awaiting gang girls is bleak indeed: 94% will go on to have children, and 84% will raise them without spouses. One third of them will be arrested, and the vast majority will be dependent on welfare" (Campbell 182). Unfortunately, the attraction of the gang to urban female youth is no mystery considering the context of isolation and poverty in which they live. In accordance with the suggestions of Father Boyle, people need to be willing to invest in the lives of youth by providing them with jobs and community support. Spending money on police protection and suppression of youth are not the most effective methods to help teen gang members in the long term. Providing them with community support and jobs is the only way to help gang members become responsible law abiding adults. Without this help, many of these youth may not have the chance to become a productive and worthwhile adult member of society.
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