The study of women in gangs is relatively new and was not examined until the 1980s. Before then, gangs were primarily associated with men and tied to crimes involving vandalism, violence, and other serious offenses. Today there are an estimated 70,000 female gang members in the United States (Gangland, 2009). It is important to understand that female gang population has increased due to dysfunctional home situations, alienation, and a deterioration of economic conditions.
Today, many women join gangs as an alternative to their dysfunctional home life. A major contributor is the amount sexual abuse female gang members receive at home. In Los Angeles where there are an estimated 5,000 female gang members, 29% of those gang members had been sexually abused in their home (OJJDP, p3). A separate study found that two-thirds of female gang members in Hawaii were also sexually abused at home (OJJDP, p3). Joining a gang allows women to escape their abusers to find protection. Gangs fulfill the need of “family” for women who fail to get this from abusive and stressful home life. The independence that gangs provide can be empowering and convince women that gang life is the solution to their broken home life. Gangs provide a "home away from home" for women who gravitate toward negative lifestyles to cope with their problems.
While dysfunctional home situations play a key role in why women join gangs, alienation is also a major contributor. When women are treated as outcasts and excluded from society, it creates frustration that attracts them to gangs. Many targets of alienation come from the illegal immigrant population. As of 2010, there are 4.64 million female immigrants living in the United States (Homeland Security, p2). Many of these women come to the United States speaking hardly any English, having little or no family ties, and often having a limited education. Because of these factors, these women are prone to exclusion from society. Alienated women, such as immigrants, see joining gangs as an alternative to their separation. Gangs fulfill their need of identity and status in society.
While gangs fulfill the need of identity, they also serve as an opportunity for women to make quick money in deteriorating economic conditions. With a 9.1% national unemployment rate, it is no surprise that female gang membership has increased for search of financial profit (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2011). Along with unemployment, welfare reforms implemented in the mid 1990s has depreciated or eliminated payments (OJJDP, p3). Gang life offers alternative ways for women to make money in areas such as the drug distribution business. In a Milwaukee study, half of female gang members were drug distributors (OJJDP, p6). The drug business is such a wide and profitable market in areas with high criminal gang activity, and women claiming their piece of the pie.
It is important to understand why women join gangs because their numbers are increasing and their influence in communities has only scratched the surface. Alternatives are what can provide hope for women in gangs or women prone to joining gangs. Programs need to target the needs of these women such as their stressful home life, alienation, and economic conditions.
1. Gangland: Girls in Gangs. History Channel. N.p., 2009. Web. 3 Oct. 2011.
2. Moore, Joan, and John Hagedorn. "Female Gangs: A Focus on Research." Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. OJJDP, Mar. 2001. Web. 6 Oct. 2011. <https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/186159.pdf>.
3. "Bureau of Labor Statistics; Economy at a Glance." United States Department of Labor . N.p., 1 September. 2011. Web. 3 October. 2011. <http://www.bls.gov/eag/ eag.ca_fresno_msa.htm>.
4. "Unauthorized Immigrant Population Estimates ." Homeland Security. N.p., 2011. Web. 4 Oct. 2011. <http://www.dhs.gov/files/statistics/immigration.shtm>.