Middle-class girlfriends 'prized by gang members'

Middle-class girlfriends are highly prized by violent gang members because they can stash weapons, drugs and cash under the police radar, a study warned today.

Young women attending private schools and living in the Home Counties are being drawn into crime by their "bad boy" boyfriends, academics said.

Researchers found teenage girls were drawn in by the apparent prestige of being linked to gangsters and the promise of protection.

They are used to hide guns, knives and drugs because they are out of suspect circles and may use their bank accounts to launder cash.

Gangsters often keep their girlfriends in the dark about their criminal activities to protect them from reprisals and detection.

But in some cases girls found themselves at risk of violence, including rape, by their own gang or rivals and believe they cannot turn to the authorities for help.

The findings were contained in a report into the impact of youth violence on girls by social policy think tank Race on the Agenda.

Author Carlene Firmin said many women linked to young criminal networks live in areas not perceived to have a "gang problem".

She said they may attend grammar or private all-girl schools and as a result will not be monitored in any way or known to services that could help them.

Ms Firmin said: "A number of girlfriends lived in non-gang affected wards or boroughs and on occasion in the Home Counties. The only service they were in contact with was their school or college.

"These girls often felt superior to those who lived in the same areas as male gang members, and were often kept away from gang activity by their boyfriends.

"The two main risks faced by these girls were 'rape as retaliation' or a criminal record or prison sentence for holding weapons, drugs or other illegal objects for their partner."

The report comes amid rising concerns about the impact of gang violence on vulnerable young women.

Both the Government and authorities in London have launched strategies aimed at tackling violence against women.

Scotland Yard has run an advertising campaign warning women of the consequences of carrying guns for their boyfriends.

Senior officers have also highlighted rising numbers of rapes involving multiple attackers. There is evidence some of this is linked to gang activity.

Last July 15-year-old Samantha Joseph was jailed for life for her role as a "honey trap" in the murder of Shakilus Townsend in south London.

A group of volunteers for Race on the Agenda interviewed 352 women, girlfriends, sisters and mothers, whose lives have been touched by violence.

They found sexual violence and exploitation are significant weapons used against women associated with gangs.

Researchers said there is evidence rape has become a weapon of choice because it cannot be detected by beefed up police stop and search tactics.

Girls were sexually abused by gang members who expected rewards for their protection and attacked by rivals as part of ongoing feuds.

Some interviewees admitted setting up other girls to be raped or assaulted, sometimes in revenge for a petty row or to escape becoming a victim themselves.

Researchers even uncovered cases where teenage girls dressed and acted like boys to avoid being raped.

Dr Theo Gavrielides, chief executive of Race On The Agenda, said: "This research does not seek to justify serious youth violence, or excuse women for any role they may play in it.

"Rather, it argues that the UK will fail in its attempts to address serious youth violence unless it works meaningfully with women and girls, recognising their specific needs and different levels of involvement and victimisation.

"Women and girls affected by serious youth and gang violence have been largely ignored in both policy and practice.

"If we don't get this right, we risk increasing the victimisation and isolation of gang-affected women and girls."

Schools Minister Vernon Coaker said: "We have put a range of measures in place to help prevent young people getting involved in gangs and serious violence - support in schools, targeted youth work in areas most at risk of serious youth violence and an ongoing drive to give young people positive activities, particularly on Friday and Saturday nights.

"But we know there is more to do, which is why the Government will shortly publish new guidance for everyone working with children and young people to help them identify those at risk."

London Mayor Boris Johnson said he has supported work to give young women skills, counselling and support to help them turn their lives around.

He said: "Gangs who exploit vulnerable young women often lure them into a vicious cycle of crime."