Florence Eshalomi (Vauxhall) (Lab/Co-op)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered gang-associated girls.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher, and to be back in Westminster Hall to debate such an important topic. Youth violence is a very serious issue across our four nations in the UK, and it has a devastating impact on families—mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers—as well as on the wider community in our towns and cities. Here in London, it has almost become a daily occurrence on news bulletins. In the last two months alone, I have had to speak to three inconsolable mothers who have lost their children as a result of knife crime. These children were murdered by their peers. As a mother of two young children myself, that is not something that I can live with, ignore or accept.
However, today I want to talk about something different—another aspect of youth violence, and one that is hidden and often under-reported. It is the role played by girls and young women, whose activities and exploits, both in and around gangs, so often fly below the radar. I will also touch on the emerging issues and evidence that gang members are using the uncertainty caused by covid-19 to recruit vulnerable girls, as they adapt their business to the models of the new normal following lockdown.
I am sure that we all want to see an end to violence, exploitation and abuse, but if we want to understand this whole complex picture, we must understand that gang violence and abuse is a gendered and intersectional issue that requires a different approach. Even the word “gang” can be problematic when discussing the risks faced by girls and women. A youth worker who I spoke to recently highlighted to me that the language used to identify this issue sometimes fails to communicate the impact suffered by girls and young women. As she put it to me:
“Girls running county lines are not in a gang. They are victims of gangs.”
Girls and young women face different risks from those faced by males. Girls and young women may experience rape and other forms of sexual abuse, physical abuse, online grooming in the form of job offers, and direct threats of violence to themselves or their families to make them move or store drugs, weapons or even cash.
Some of these girls start off as girlfriends and get emotionally drawn into a relationship with an exploiter, and they face the additional emotional obstacle of trying to escape from that relationship as well as other forms of exploitation. Young women often carry the emotional burden for gang members and their wider crew, because they are often relied on for emotional support and counsel. Unfortunately, some girls are forced into criminal activity, such as county lines—moving drugs between cities and rural areas. There have been press reports recently of young women dressing as key workers to avoid being stopped and searched while travelling during lockdown.
The perception that girls work only in low-key roles in county lines is now starting to be challenged, with professionals reporting that, increasingly, young women work in the same roles as young men. That highlights the full scale of the exploitation that is taking place. Also, because young women and girls often go under the radar, their associations are much harder to track than those of males, but that does not mean that we should not offer them support. These are some of the most vulnerable young women and girls.
In February, in my role as London Assembly member for Lambeth and Southwark, I released a report entitled “Gang Associated Girls: Supporting young women at risk”. One key issue that I identified was a lack of data. There was no reliable information about the number of girls associated with gangs. For example, here in London, the Metropolitan Police Service’s records as of last year highlighted on its gangs matrix only six females, in contrast to 2,492 males. However, also in February, the Children’s Commissioner estimated that about 2,290 girls were associated with gangs in England; that is about 34% of all gang-associated children. When I sent a freedom of information request to all London boroughs, I found that more than 1,000 young women and girls had gang associations identified as a factor in their assessments by children’s social services. Therefore, we know that the data is patchy at best.
The invisibility of gangs’ association with girls has dire consequences. Abianda, a social enterprise that works with young women, highlighted that and the problems that it causes. A report from the crisis support charity Hestia in July found that girls were being deployed in county lines operations specifically because they were less likely to be stopped and searched by the police, and that exploitative romantic relationships were being used to lure young girls and women into carrying out that dangerous activity. Therefore, while we as the policy makers fail to truly appreciate the role that girls are playing in gangs, the same gangs are deliberately using that exploitation—that gendered advantage—to pursue their criminal activities. They are evading the law and, because girls on the periphery of gang violence who may need support are not being identified, funding is being disproportionately channelled into supporting young men.
A lot of good work is going on to rehabilitate young men away from this criminality, but there is little support for young women and girls. The issue of gangs’ association with girls is largely absent from the public discourse about violent crime, with both media reporting and funding concentrating on young men who are involved with gangs. Unfortunately, that means that public agencies risk missing the signs of gang-associated girls and do not offer the right support services to help them. If we do not offer adequate support to young women and girls at risk of gang association, we miss a vital opportunity to tackle violent crime.
The Minister shares my passion to end the exploitation of county lines, so will she ensure that resources are put in to disrupt county lines, working on the principle of taking a gendered approach to ensure that those working to prevent county lines activity are always aware of the role of young women and girls in these operations? If we accept that the cause of gang-associated violence has a gender dimension, it follows that the solution should also adopt a gendered approach rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.
Young women and girls experience the trauma of gang-related violence in a different way and, as a result, they present differently in hospital settings. Redthread, a charity whose workers operate in hospitals across London and the midlands, has reported that when they talk to young women, they are less likely to present with a physical injury, such as knife wounds, and are more likely to present with psychological issues related to trauma, such as self-harm, suicidal ideation and overdoses. In response, that charity has placed a number of young female workers in accident and emergency departments specifically to support these young women and girls.
The St Giles Trust is another charity that helps young people who are caught up in gangs. It has found that when it works in a hospital and its staff are given flexible access to a range of departments, they can identify these females at risk of exploitation and criminal and sexual abuse. If staff can get to them earlier, it will save costs down the line and get better results for the young women and girls.
Gender-based support works, but we know that our local councils up and down the country are struggling to provide that tailored support because of severe budget cuts. Given the potentially life-changing benefits that will be produced by programmes such as these, run by charities, will the Minister lobby the Chancellor of the Exchequer to ensure that councils have the funding available to provide that bespoke care? The reality is that gang-associated girls are part of a bigger system that not only harms the young women and girls directly involved, but contributes to the wider criminal activities of gangs and their exploitation of children and vulnerable young adults.
We cannot address gang violence without taking a gendered and intersectional approach. We need a better understanding of the role that girls and young women face so that support services can be there for them. We need to look at targeted interventions to help the girls who are being exploited, groomed and abused. We need to continue to raise awareness with the authorities around the use of girls in county lines and other gang-related activities, and we need policy makers to change the language that they use in highlighting the issue. Most importantly, we need to continue to listen to what young women and girls tell us.
When we talk about youth violence, knife crime or gangs, young people are too often labelled as criminals and perpetrators, but evidence shows that the young people themselves have been victims of crimes. We need to remember that when we talk about them. We are all here today because we want an end to the criminal exploitation of all vulnerable young people. To do that, we need to recognise and understand the gender dimension of gang association and violence, and invest in solutions based on that reality. It is a difficult reality, but one that we need to face up to, otherwise we risk dealing with only part of the problem. If we do that, the girls and young women who we all care about, and will carry on advocating for, will continue to suffer and end up in prison, or, even worse, continue to lose their lives.