Research Paper: Impact of Gangs on Females

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Detrimental Effects of Female Gang Membership

In sociological terms, gangs usually refers to groups of juveniles. Gangs are seen as a form of establishing social order that offers an alternative source of status. The term 'gang' typically evokes violence, drug use and dealing and crime.

When a new member joins a gang, he/she must usually go through an initiation. Initiations do not usually involve elaborate ceremonies or formalities, but the initiate will have to endure certain rites. The most common is "jumping in," a beating issued by all the gang members. Gangs that accept female gang members sometimes rape them as their initiation instead of a "jumping in." Following the initiation the new gang member must participate in a mission. This can be anything from stealing a car to engaging in a firefight with a rival gang. Some gangs do not consider anyone a full member until they have shot or killed someone. Getting a tattoo with gang symbols may be another part of the initiation. Daily gang life is generally not very exciting. Gang members sleep late, sit around the neighborhood, drink and do drugs and possibly go to a meeting place in the evening, such as a pool hall or roller rink. They may work a street corner selling drugs or commit petty crimes like vandalism or theft. The notion of respect drives gang life almost completely, and for many gang members, gaining respect means committing violent crimes. While it is relatively rare compared to their other activities, gangs do assault, shoot and assassinate people for money, turf, pride or revenge.

According to "Gang Facts and Statistics," the estimated total number of gang membership in 2009 was one million. Of that number, 6% to 10% were females. (Gang Facts and Statistics). In the United States, there are approximately 14,000 girls held in correctional/residential facilities with a majority of those having some kind of gang affiliation (Gang Facts). There are several issues that contribute or impact on female gang membership. Nearly one in three girls in gangs have been in special education (Gang Facts). In addition, they are often low income and have been sexually victimized and/or exposed to violence (Gang Facts). Their low income status and lack of education and victimization is further complicated in most cases with family dysfunction (Gang Facts).

Gangs are studied because they are a social concern. This concern stems from traditionally masculine acts of vandalism, violence, and other serious threats committed by gangs. It was believed that women did not participate in these activities, therefore early researchers were not interested in the delinquency of female gang members (Murrish, Helen). Despite seven decades of research on male gangs and crime, there has been no parallel trend in research on girls' involvement in gang activity (Murrish).

Official data from law enforcement sources suggest that girls comprise between 8 and 11% of the youth in gangs. A number of recent studies that survey gang youth, however, suggest that females make up 20 to 46% of gang members (Murrish). Law enforcement data tend to underestimate the extent of female gang membership for a variety of reasons, including a lack of common definition of a gang member and the consistent underreporting of female participation in gangs. The high number of female gang members recorded in self-report surveys may reflect the younger ages of survey respondents compared to the youth who appear on police rosters: females tend to drop out of gang life earlier than males, often because of pregnancy (Murrish). Although the percentage of girls who are involved in delinquency and crime have increased significantly in the past two decades, it is still far below the level of boys' involvement and the nature of the activity differs significantly (Murrish). Each of these deficiencies of the traditional gang literature points to the single most important reason for studying girls in gangs: girls and boys are different. Although they may share many of the same experiences, they act, react, and interact in different ways. Exploring the differences between males and females in their reasons to join gangs, ways to get into gangs, activities in the gang, ways to get out of the gang, and community responses and solutions to gang participation is a key factor.

It appears that the factors that influence delinquent development differ for males and females in some contexts but not others (Murrish). Most often, it appears that girls join gangs because they are seeking a familial peer group and emotionally fulfilling relationships with other members of the gang. Boys, on the other hand, are more drawn to the action associated with gang affiliation (Murrish). For this reason, girls express a higher level of attachment to the gang because they come to the gang looking for that kind of attachment. The reasons for any juvenile joining a gang are complex and personal. Though most females join gangs for friendship and self-affirmation, recent research has begun to shed some light on economic and family pressures motivating many young women to join gangs (Murrish). Many of the impulses that propel youth into gangs are social and understandable -- the need for safety, security, and a sense of purpose and belonging

A study in Pediatrics revealed the startling and detrimental effects of female gang membership and health issues. The study involved 522 non-incarcerated African-American females from the ages of 14 to 18 with the average age being 16 (Wingood, DiClemente, Crosby, Harrington, Davies, Hook). Their interviews were conducted by African-American medical and public health students from December 1996 to April 1999. The number of these females who claimed a history of gang involvement was 14.8% (Wingood). Overall, 29% of the females tested positive for having sexually transmitted infections/diseases (Wingood). The health compromising behaviors included risky sexual behavior, drug and alcohol abuse and violence. The authors of this study point out that this particular group is an understudied population. Future research examining the impact of gang involvement on adolescents' health would benefit from longitudinal research designs (Wingood). Moreover, the sample was limited to African-American female adolescents. Thus, the findings from this sample may not be generalizable to other racial/ethnic groups, males, or adolescents residing in larger urban environments. In addition, this study did not examine factors associated with gang involvement, including the length of time adolescents were in gangs, whether participants were involved in male gangs or female-only gangs or the types of gangs in which participants where involved (ie, street or drug gangs). Examining larger social contextual factors associated with gang involvement may be crucial for developing prevention programs designed to deter female gang membership.

A significant finding is the association between gang involvement and sexually transmitted diseases/HIV associated behaviors with adolescents claiming a history of gang involvement being 3 1/2 times more likely to test positive for sexually transmitted diseases. Those adolescents with gang involvement also suffered increased incidences of depression and low self-esteem (Wingood, 4). The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement where pediatricians can play a critical role in assisting adolescents involved in gangs (Wingood, 4). By making referrals to community violence prevention programs, advocating recreational, therapeutic and occupational programs and coordinating a national policy with a serioux focus on preventing the basic causes of gang involvement (Wingood).

Another study in Feminist Criminology, focused on incarcerated females and was limited on that basis. However, there was a high rate of victimization among the females studied and the cycle of violence that creates the risk factors for delinquent females (Belknap, Holsinger). With 24% claiming gang membership, the role of violence in the home was significant (Belknap, 63). The number of females in the study who had had one pregnancy was 20.9% (Belknap, 63.) Of those pregnant, there were 8.9% who had been pregnant twice. Keeping in mind that these are adolescents, 5.7% reported being pregnant three of more times (Belknap, 64). Of the girls who reported a pregnancy, more than one quarter (27.8%) reported experiencing a miscarriage and about one twentieth (5.7%) reported having an abortion (Belknap). The violence in their lives, coupled with early sexual activity indicates major risk factors for future criminal behavior in girls (Belknap). Sadly, the devaluation of the lives of both juvenile delinquents and non-delinquent abused children from more economically disadvantaged homes appears to have become status quo in the United States.

In Criminal Justice and Behavior, 234 female delinquents in a girl's facility with a minimum court ordered commitment of 12 weeks and a maximum stay of approximately 6 months were studied (St. Lawrence, Snodgrass, Robertson, Baird-Thomas). The ages ranged from 13 to 17 years with an average of 15.1 (St. Lawrence). The was 84% African-American, 13% Caucasian and 1% Asian-American/Native American (St. Lawrence, 1504). Surprisingly, while there was a high rate of unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, none were HIV-seropositive (St. Lawrence, 1512). However, with the incidence of pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, these girls have a high potential risk for HIV infection and had, at least to their current situation, dodge a serious consequence (St. Lawrence, 1512).… [END OF PREVIEW]

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