Girls are often seen as the victims of gang crime but a new play performed by Birmingham teenagers aims to explore a hidden truth; that girls can be offenders too, writes Louisa Peacock.
Exploring the impact of gangs on girls: A new play encourages girls to break their silence on gang culture Photo: Graeme Braidwood
By Louisa Peacock Telegraph
03 Dec 2012
At 21, Ukeila Prophet describes herself as being a "hard shell cookie". Growing up in Birmingham City Centre, she was affiliated with gang culture as far back as she can remember and adopted a hard-shell exterior to protect herself.
Although never a gang member herself, Ukeila had male and female friends who were involved and she was "caught in the middle", mixing with people from different areas and diverse backgrounds; all with some experience or connection to gang culture.
"You may not be directly involved but you could have a brother or a friend who is; I grew up around gang culture," she explains.
At 16 and unsure of who she was, Ukeila got into a fight. The bust up led to her getting a caution, which to this day haunts Ukeila. "Even to this day, on application forms [for jobs] I have to list that I got a caution," she sighs.
But the young woman from Birmingham says that was also the day she chose to follow a new path in life. "I knew I wanted a career and I never wanted to end up in that position again. It was the day I changed," she says.
Ukeila is now a successful performing arts and dance student at theBirmingham School of Acting, part of Birmingham City University. She is proud to be taking part in the school's latest play, which explores the impact of gangs on girls.
The 45-minute play, which is being shown to Year 10 female students from schools across the City for free throughout November and December, is part of a series of projects taking place in Birmingham to raise awareness about girl crime and the effect of gangs on teenage girls, in collaboration with Birmingham Community Safety Partnershipand Birmingham and Solihull Women's Aid.
Gang culture: These teenage girls are performing in "She" to tackle the myths and stereotypes around girls in gangs
Following the riots that swept Britain last summer, Birmingham City was awarded some £1.3m from central government to explore gang culture and address what Ukeila describes as the increasing "blurred boundaries" between male and female gang members.
Birmingham was one of 29 cities awarded funding from the Home Office – which set aside a total of £10m following the riots – and has set up a series of projects aimed at preventing teenagers from joining gangs and offering support to those already involved. The play is one of six initiatives taking place in the city to help prevent boys and girls from joining gangs; although a large chunk of the money has gone towards what is seen as an increasing problem for the city: female gang members.
Called "She", the theatrical performance is a mixture of drama, dance, music, singing, film, animation and poetry – Ukeila's favourite – including real stories of teenage girls focusing on their relationships with gangs.
"The aim of the play is to attract young girls and try to stop them getting involved with gangs at an early age. We hope to spread awareness in an 'in your face' way that makes an impact, that says it's OK to say 'no' to boys in gangs," Ukeila says.
As well as exploring the still-taboo concept that girls can join and lead gang crime, the play also unveils the nasty side of sexual exploitation of girls in gangs, "which is a very real situation" in Birmingham, according to Hannah Phillips, course director of applied performance at the BSA and director of "She".
Ms Philips says the focus on gang culture in Birmingham has been on men for a very long time. She explains: "The relationship of girls with gangs and the sexual exploitation of girls, which is a very real situation in our city, have remained invisible for a long time.
“We aim to raise the awareness of teenage girls and inform them of the dangers of being associated with gangs. Young women need to be empowered to make choices and to value themselves."
Ukeila says the subject of "girl gangs" is still hardly spoken about, making it harder for young women affiliated with gang culture to choose a way out. "I grew up around gang culture but the subject has never been approached, it's swept under the carpet. There is a myth that people who are in gangs choose to be there but that's not the case; some young girls join because they don't know there's another way," she says.
A male member of the cast of "She", a play to tackle the myths around girls in gangs.
Ukeila explains that girls are often "used" by boys in gangs to initiate meetings with rival gang members. When the girl meets a boy from another gang, her fellow male gang members will take over and start a fight. Girls can also be exploited sexually by their male gang members, she says.
"We want to say to young girls, 'don't be afraid to stay alone'," she says. "It's OK to say no to a guy."
Hasan Wazir, of the Birmingham Community Safety Partnership, says part of the problem of trying to tackle gang violence is that there are no hard facts on the number of women involved in gangs.
"Nationally, girls and young women aged 10 to 29 are often seen as the victims of gang violence, but they can be the offenders too. We are doing work at the moment to see how involved girls are in gang cultures and what their motivations are," he says.
It is possible that girls are motivated for the same reasons as boys to join a gang: to feel as though they belong to something; because their family members or friends are already members; to make money; to project a "macho" image and last but not least, "peer pressure", he says.
There are no official statistics on how many girls are involved, although anecdotally, the Birmingham Community Safety Partnership hears of plenty of cases of girls joining gangs, he says.
The play is just one way of reaching out to young girls across schools to help them understand that there is another way of life and support out there for them should they choose to escape gang culture, he says. But it will also help the authorities to get a grip on what is seen anecdotally as a huge problem for the city.
Following the play, which is being shown across schools, the Partnership and local Women's Aid immediately runs workshops with young girls to discuss some of the issues raised in the hard-hitting performance, from sexual exploitation to domestic violence.
The aim is to enable young women who may be watching the play and are affiliated with gangs to speak up and get support through one-to-one mentoring and counselling, says Mr Wazir.
Although some girls can be reluctant to come forward, Mr Wazir insists the objective is not about "grassing" on other gang members but more about offering support to help young people choose a different way of life.
Longer-term mentoring programmes and education and awareness sessions are available for those young girls who need it, he explains.
One of the most memorable images of the London riots, a woman is seen jumping from a burning building into the arms of passers-by.
Birmingham City received the biggest amount of funding from the Home Office to explore gang culture following the riots, because it has the biggest number of young people, Mr Wazir said. The other 28 cities, including Manchester, Salford, Wolverhampton and London,where the riots started, are also exploring gang culture but won't necessarily be looking at girls in gangs.
The Home Office report said: "In focusing on the male perpetrators and male victims of gang violence it can be easy to lose sight of the role that young women and girls may have in gang-related activity, and the hidden impact of serious youth violence on them. Research by the organisation Race on the Agenda (2010; 2011) has exposed the significant harm that women and girls can experience as a result of their relationships with gang-associated male peers and family members.
"In taking forward our programme for ending gang and youth violence we will make sure our response identifies the needs of girls and young women involved in youth violence – as perpetrators as well as victims."
Ukeila says: "My personal view is that the gender boundaries have merged for who is joining gangs. Boys may use girls to get at other gang members, but the girls are in on it – they are out to save themselves. Sometimes you have girls who are 'butch', like the men, but it's so easy to join. Growing up in these areas, you [join] to protect yourself," she says.
‘She’ is being performed for public audiences on Monday 3 December and Tuesday 4 December at The Drum, 144 Potters Lane, Birmingham, B6 4UU. Tickets for public performances cost £5 (£3 concessions) and can be purchased online at www.the-drum.org.ukor by calling 0121 333 2444.
‘She’ has been marked as suitable only for audiences aged 14 and over. For enquiries regarding school performances, please call 0121 303 6175.