In the aftermath of England’s August riots, a small number of girls have been brought before the court. They have been lumped together by the media, predictably described by their clothes and hair. But the main thing they have in common is that they rioted and that they are girls. Why and how they participated in the riots will differ according to their circumstances.
Sadly, violence touches the lives of some girls and young women in their homes, their schools, their relationships, their peer groups and on the streets. Some girls have to navigate violent landscapes each day. Depending on their backgrounds, their contact with those who can help and their self-esteem or resilience, that violence can impact some girls’ choices and outlook.
Over the past five years, I have worked with and interviewed hundreds of girls caught up in volatile and violent environments. Some have held firearms on behalf of boys, others have attacked boys. Some say they are aggressive so that young men won’t see them as sexual objects to be abused and attacked, others because they want to make money. But how many of these motivations are reflected in our response to their violence?
Interventions for children who have committed offences are centred around why boys engage in, or desist from, offending. The Youth Justice Board reported earlier this year that in 2009/10 males were responsible for 78% of all recorded offences committed by young people. Amid the commentary that girls are becoming increasingly violent, the youth justice system has never been designed to respond to offending by young women. From the assessment tools used to predict risk to the interventions designed to decrease vulnerability, girls have been an afterthought. If we really want to prevent offending and reoffending this needs to change.
Taking a gendered approach to the youth justice system is not about making excuses for girls who offend, or claiming that boys should be punished and girls should not. We live in a gendered world. Girls experience the world as girls, and the world responds to them in the same way: their involvement in the riots is another example of this. Any response to girls who have committed offences needs to be able to recognise the gendered context within which these offences are committed.
I have lost count of the numbers who have said to me, “How do you think it was for me – I was the only girl?” when recounting their experiences of being in the youth justice system where their needs were ignored.
While the involvement of girls in violence is documented, we are yet to see a gendered consideration of what needs to happen at a policy level. Speculation about the impact on boys of being raised by single mothers has been plentiful, for example, but what is the impact on girls? Do we know how many girls are in single parent homes because of domestic violence? And even when we can answer these questions, we still need to know the impact of such circumstances on the girls who do commit violence, and the majority who don’t. We cannot make sense of young women’s involvement in violence until we can pick these issues apart.
We are starting to see progress. Only last month, the all-party parliamentary group on women in the penal system announced that it would hold an independent inquiry into girls in the justice system. Such an inquiry will, for the first time, shine a light on the experiences of young women in a system designed for young men, and make the case for a justice system relevant to girls. The inquiry comes in a year when the government launched its action plan to end violence against women and girls, and backed a plan to tackle child sexual exploitation.
Addressing the victimisation and offending of young women is essential if we are to prevent their use of violence. The recent riots have reawakened the public consciousness to the impact that violence can have on our lives. Now is the time to harness this interest and fear to create a more effective criminal justice system.
Violence damages lives in different ways. A more gendered approach has to be part of the way forward.
Carlene Firmin is founder of the Gag Project to empower gang-affected women and girls.