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"I was always mad and I took my pain out on others. . . I started acting like this when I was 9 years old and I think it's because my father wasn't around, my mom didn't understand me, and I just felt lonely and confused. I was just looking for someone to really listen and so I turned to gang banging and living the crazy lifestyle.”
—Ayan, age 15 (Girl Scouting in Detention Centers participant)
Youth gangs are broadly defined as a group of juveniles who form an allegiance, claim a territory, wear common colors, hang out together and commit crimes together. And they are attracting more and more girls. According to a National Youth Gang Survey, approximately 6 percent of the almost 773,000 documented active gang members were female.
And gangs are not just a big city problem. In fact, female gangs are more likely to be found in small cities and rural areas than in large cities. Eighty-seven percent of police departments in suburban counties with populations of 100,000 to 249,999 report persistent gang activity in their communities.
From 'Could-be' to 'Wanna-be'
Gang members refer to girls under 10 years old as "could-be's," while those who imitate gang dress or behavior or hang around with gang members, are known as "wanna-be's." Girls who have gone through a gang initiation and participate in a variety of activities, including robbery or violence. are "regular members."
Major Risk Factors
Jody Miller, an associate professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri—St. Louis and a leading researcher on girls and gangs, notes three factors exhibited by girls who join gangs: they come from dysfunctional families, have gangs in their neighborhoods or have peers who belong to gangs, and have a family member involved in a gang. Meda Chesney-Lind, a criminologist, professor of Women's Studies at the University of Hawaii-Manoa and author of several books on girls in gangs, notes that the majority of girls who join gangs have been sexually or physically abused and see gangs as a refuge.
But even girls from caring homes can become involved in gangs, so parents need to be alert if their daughters exhibit the following signs: regularly dressing in one color; having gang symbols or gang-like graffiti written on books or clothing; getting a tattoo with gang connotations (such as the number 13 or the name of a street or neighborhood); being called by a new nickname (such as Crazy Girl); becoming aggressive; or suddenly having a lot of extra cash from unknown sources.
Prevention and Positive Alternatives
Some of the things parents can do to combat gangs is to report suspicious activities to the police, share information with other parents, and ensure that supervised, positive after-school and weekend activities are available. Girl Scouting, which has always been committed to the well-being of girls, provides a safe, nurturing environment where they can make friends, find acceptance, and learn important life-skills.
Girl Scouts has been helping girls build skills for dealing with violence and negative influences with programs funded by GSUSA and the Department of Justice and delivered through Girl Scouting in Detention Centers and P.A.V.E. (Project Anti-Violence Education) the Way. These programs serve girls who are at risk for joining gangs or who are involved in the juvenile justice system. Young-adult staff, who serve as program counselors, facilitate discussions on violence prevention, self-esteem, making positive choices and setting goals. Guest speakers conduct workshops on topics such as teen dating violence and non-traditional career options.
Last year, 80 percent of participants reported that the program increased their ability to make positive life choices. "I learned from the program counselors to have more confidence in myself and to treat others better,” said one participant. "The program has made a difference. Before, I would not talk to anyone and just keep it all to myself. Now, I got so close to the counselors that I can tell them my problems."
Visit the Web site of the National Criminal Justice Reference Service, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, for information on: