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Youth justice in the UK: children, young people and crime
Youth justice in the UK: children, young people and crime

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3 Girls and the gangs

This is a photograph of two girls and a boy.
Figure 3

In 2018–19, there were a lot of concerns about knife crime and drug gangs using ‘county lines’ to develop their illegal and violent trading activity beyond the cities where it had previously been located. ‘County lines’ are explored further in Session 7. Those involved, and harmed, in London and elsewhere were mainly young men but girls and young women were certainly not absent from the picture. In April 2018, a 17 year old young woman, Tanesha Melbourne, was shot dead in Tottenham, north London. The bullets that killed her were fired from a car passing the group of young people she was with at the time. She became the ninth teenager to be killed in London in what was to become a violent year for the capital. By the end of 2018, 132 people had died as a result of violent crime.

Activity 4 Nequela’s story

Timing: Allow approximately 15 minutes for this activity

Young people involved in gangs are often in the news but their stories rarely get told in full. It is even more unusual that they get to tell their own story in their own words. This activity offers you a chance to hear one young woman’s account of her life.

Before reading this story, write down two reasons why you think a young woman would end up leading a gang. When you’ve read the story, you can compare your reasons with any you find in Nequela’s account.

Read this article written by Natalie Gil about a young woman – Nequela Whittaker – and her journey leading a gang:

Drugs, fights and guns: my life as a female gang leader in London [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

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Nequela is speaking about a life she has left behind and it is undoubtedly unusual for her to have lived a life more commonly associated with young men. Her life in that sense is atypical, and recent research with young women in east London suggests that to think of young women as ‘victims’ of gang activity reproduces stereotypical ideas about women’s passivity. Young women may be involved at various levels of gang criminality and actively negotiate their involvement (Choak, 2018). Nequela’s story reveals a variety of reasons for her involvement, including exposure to serious trauma and extreme violence – the murder of a close friend.

Notwithstanding accounts such as Nequela’s, it is more common for girls and young women to get involved around the periphery of low-level crime and anti-social behaviour. Interventions by youth justice agencies, sometimes motivated by genuine concerns to protect girls, can often have the reverse effect than the one intended. The fictional case study you will explore next offers some insights into how this can happen.