Gangs in the Western Cape aren't picky when it comes to recruiting new members. They also rope in girls and women, some as young as 12 years, to do their work for them.
“Women play various roles in gangs. These include being information carriers, hiding and handling contraband; 'trapping' rival male gang members, selling drugs and taking part in robberies. This clearly shows that women are in fact part of core gang activities, and do not just exist on the periphery of gangs," says registered counsellor Imanuella Muller who recently obtained her Master's degree in Psychology at Stellenbosch University.
Muller did research on how young girls and women in the Western Cape are recruited and initiated into gangs, and what their role and functions are in these gangs. She also tried to find out what could be done to prevent them from joining gangs as well as how women who want to leave a gang or who have already chosen to do so can be supported.
Muller interviewed women who have been involved in gang culture to differing extents and who participated in an intervention project that offered them a new lease on life.
She says her findings show that some girls are deceived or seduced into becoming involved with gangs through socialising with or by dating gang members. Gangs know the needs and the vulnerabilities of girls in their communities, and they tug at these vulnerabilities to exploit them for their benefit and gain, adds Muller.
“Gangs sometimes target women who are addicted to drugs or who come from family backgrounds of financial wealth and standing in communities, in order to utilise their financial resources and status for the benefit of the gang. A common pathway into gangs is through becoming romantically involved with a male gang member.
“Young women may be attracted and drawn to gangs because of the easy access to, and the availability of drugs."
Muller says gangs use fear and intimidation to recruit women and young girls and to keep them trapped in gangs.
“One of the participants mentioned that when socialising with gang members and being in gangs, women are exposed to many details regarding the activities of gangs. Having this knowledge of gang activities as an outsider puts the gang at risk, and due to this, they need to then become a part of the gang to prove that they can be trusted. Resisting that pressure puts them and their families at risk."
Muller says even though the participants didn't mention a specific initiation ritual, they still emphasised the importance of having to prove their loyalty and commitment to the gang.
“The act of 'trapping' or seducing a rival male gang member is something that's unique to female gangsters. They will lure or seduce a male member from a rival gang that may be on their gang's 'hit' list, so that it becomes easier for their gang to kill him.
“Initiating a woman into a gang symbolises or communicates to gang members that she can be trusted and has proven her loyalty."
Muller says it's difficult for a woman to leave a gang, especially if she has children fathered by a gang member or is financially dependent on a gang member.
“They can leave if they have the necessary support systems in place (a safe place to stay, financial means to support themselves and their children), although sometimes this can also mean leaving their homes and families behind in order to pursue a new life in a different town or city.
“These women need supervised and safe recreational clubs or groups where they can be involved in exciting yet healthy, constructive activities and experience a sense of belonging and community; mental health services; counselling and therapy, mentorship and career guidance programmes; educational opportunities, as well as funding opportunities for those who want to complete high school, study further and become skilled and find a job."
According to Muller, existing pre-and-post-intervention initiatives may not offer sustainable change for some young girls and women due to a lack of funding.
She adds that some programmes may not be holistic enough in addressing the diverse needs of this group of women.
“For example, drug addiction is a common challenge among women in gangs, which requires specialised treatment and management. In the absence of viable economic opportunities, the likelihood of returning to a gang is very high."
Muller says ex-female gangsters, the government, NGOs, community organisations, community leaders, private sector funders and multidisciplinary teams (registered counsellors, psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers) should be involved in pre-and post-intervention initiatives.
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