Women and girls in gangs are at serious risk, but only a small portion are known to children’s services
“Put your shoes on, put your coat on, pack your knife,” says Nequela Whittaker, a former gang leader in South London turned youth worker. “It’s a ritual for too many young people in the UK. Not only boys, girls also,” the energetic 31-year-old tells me sitting in a meeting room in South London’s Merton Council, where she talks with young people everyday, mostly girls, who are caught up in street crime. It’s not a place she imagined she’d be at the age of 17 when she was sent to prison for smuggling heroin between England and Scotland.
‘Nerd’, ‘Mouthy’ and ‘Wisey’ are the names Whittaker was given growing up. She says she was bullied for being “different” at her school in Croydon. ‘Nerd’ is what they shouted at her on the bus to school from her home in Brixton. “They made fun of my violin and shoes,” she says. “I was so angry.” She was raised by a single mother and an older sibling. She was two-years-old when her father left. “He was a crack addict,” says Whittaker. She didn’t feel accepted by her family because of her sexuality.
At the age of 13 she made her own gang with three other girls. ‘Mouthy’ is what they called her. “We fought against other girls, we had weapons. It gave us power and credibility. We felt protected,” she says.
“Girls are used to carry knives, for example in their baby strollers, because they’re less likely to be stopped by the police” - Jennifer Blake
But joining a gang took her into a world of violence. “I saw people beaten up and killed”. But her worst memory, she says, was seeing her friend get shot dead in the back when she was 16-years-old. It was during her one year in prison that Whittaker realised she wanted to change her life and work to help people. Inmates gave her the name ‘Wisey’ for her knack for listening to their problems and giving advice. When she got out in 2009, at the age of 20, she enrolled in a social science degree and worked at a youth club in London. It seems that the work that Whittaker does in South London has never been more important.
Knife possession offences involving women in England have sharply increased since 2014, rising by at least 10 per cent every year, the BBC reported last week. Approximately 1,509 offences involving women were recorded in 2018 - a rise of 73 per cent over the last five years. London's Metropolitan Police saw the highest number of possession cases involving women, while areas of northern England saw the number female knife possession crimes soar.
The figures are shocking to many, but not to Whittaker and Jennifer Blake, an ex-gang member and independent gangs consultant. It’s not a “new” problem, says Blake, “It’s just that it’s being recognised now.” The former gang members say the figures are connected to young women and girls joining gangs. Females are used to carry weapons for them or do “county-lines” - the couriering of drugs between towns and cities - because they’re less likely to be stopped by police, they say.
“Some girls have an illusion that love is carrying a knife for their boyfriend. I’ve seen girls, 11 years old, trapped in this” - Nequela Whittaker
“Girls are used to carry knives, for example in their baby strollers, because they’re less likely to be stopped by the police,” says Blake, who spent 23 years in gangs and has had 14 convictions. The 51-year-old dedicated herself to raising awareness after she got out of gangs in 2004.
She estimates that for each male imprisoned for a gang-related offence, there are about ten females who committed a crime to help him. “From possessing a knife to providing a place to stash drugs,” says Blake.
Social workers believe it’s a little known problem. And police agree. “Girls are going under the radar,” said Sophia Linden, London's deputy mayor for policing. 3,000 male gang members known to London authorities and their female counterparts - just 18. Meanwhile there are an estimated 70,000 gang members in the UK. The Office for National Statistics said girls could make up as much as 50% of the 27,000 children in England in gangs.
REASONS AND RISKS
Relationships, reputation, power, fear are reasons girls join gangs, says Blake, who has been working to support females in gangs since she was released from prison in 2004. “But mostly, it’s relationships. Often they have low-self esteem and want to please their man,” she says.
“Peer grooming” plays a big part, says Whittaker. “Some girls have an illusion that love is carrying a knife for their boyfriend. I’ve seen girls, 11-years-old, trapped in this,” she says.
There’s another cohort of girls, says Blake, who join gangs and sell drugs out of pleasure, or they believe do it out of pleasure. “But there usually are a lot of underlying issues with these individuals,” she says.
Women and girls involved in gangs are at serious risk of exploitation and abuse. Blake was raped and kidnapped. Throughout the years she was beaten up and blackmailed. The Center for Social Justice (CSJ) found that thousands of girls in UK gangs as young as 11-years-old, have faced sexual violence. Blake and Whittaker say they’ve supported countless girls who have been controlled through ‘sextortion’ (the threat of sending or posting explicit photos) to carry weapons or drugs.
“It happens everyday,” says Blake. But only a small portion of girls in gangs are known to children’s services. Of the youth offenders who receive social support, 92 per cent are boys and only 8 per cent are girls.
“You never forget about the people you work with. Sometimes I’m on the phone until the early hours of the morning consoling them. It can be hard. But who else is going to do it? They talk to me because I’m not a teacher or a policewoman. They trust me and I understand them,” says Whittaker.
STOPPING STREET VIOLENCE
Last July, the chair of the home affairs committee Yvette Cooper said “Serious violence has got worse after a perfect storm of youth service cuts, police cuts, more children being excluded from school and a failure of statutory agencies to keep them safe,” as reported by Public Finance.
2017/18 data from 25 London councils showed 81 youth centres and major council-supported youth projects have been cut. Councils say they're “being forced to divert the limited funding they have left away from preventative work, including young offenders teams and youth work, into services to protect children who are at immediate risk of harm.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged to make England’s streets safer by deploying 20,000 more police officers by 2022, creating 10,000 new prison spots by 2020 and increasing stop and search. While the government found that knife crime, gun crime and homicide have risen in recent years as stop-and-search has fallen, it dismissed any direct link between the two.
Youth workers and politicians say Johnson’s plan is not a solution. A shamefully “hands-off approach” to “a crisis” is how Cooper described it. “We need a large-scale and long term plan that includes a new generation of youth workers, more investment in early years and troubled families programmes, better children’s mental health services, a strategy to tackle school exclusions and keeping schools open for longer to help protect some of the most vulnerable children,” said Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield.
Whittaker says more “safe spaces” are especially what the country needs. “Places where young people, who feel like they’re in danger can go to and where there’s a protocol to help them.”
Youth workers say they’re still waiting to be heard at a national level, to solve what they consider a national emergency. In Blake’s view, the UK needs a designated minister with deal specifically with the issue of young people in street crime, with expertise on the challenges females face. “We don’t seem to have a voice in parliament. But every day there’s a stabbing in our community. Every day,” she says. “It’s not until you’re stabbed that you’re seen as a priority.”
As we walk out of Merton Council together, a girl runs up to Whittaker and hugs her. “She was in my play,” Whittaker says, who has written a book about her life called Street Girl. She introduces her with a wide smile.