Teenage girls driven to violence by feuds, drink and jealousy
Two court cases last week sparked debate about
the growth of violence among young women. Here,
teenagers talk about the aggression and bullying
that is part of their lives
Sitting on a cold concrete step by a north London canal, dressed
in pink and black with swinging plastic earrings, thick eyeliner and
hair intensively straightened, the girls look like any other
teenagers on any other British street.
In a week where two court cases involving vicious assaults by teenage girls ignited fears over a growing trend towards violence among young women, these two 17-year-olds are adamant that there is no such phenomenon as "girl gangs", just groups of mates who look out for each other. "If someone's been talking about you behind your back and saying things that aren't true, or if she's being making threats, then you can front her up, and if it gets mean, then you might end up giving her a slap. You can't just go around being bullied," explains Tish. "But that's not violence, that's self-defence. [If] you are a bully, then you deserve whatever you get. Violence is stabbing and a proper beating. I don't hang out with girls that carry knives."
Jozee raises her eyebrows and starts laughing. In March, egged on by her friends, who claimed her stepbrother had been spreading malicious rumours about her, Tish attacked him with a hunting knife. The bottle of vodka she had drunk beforehand made sure she didn't inflict any serious damage, unlike an incident when she was 15 and broke another girl's nose. "I didn't start that fight, she was bullying me and thought she could turn all my mates against me. She deserved that."
Bullying, both say, is about jealousy. Their stories of teenage feuds and disputes get increasingly complex until Tish is in angry tears talking about the unhappiness of her childhood, a drug-addled mum and her succession of violent boyfriends. Neither will admit to ever carrying knives, as police sirens swing past over the canal bridge – Jozee says it is too risky because police now target young women. "They didn't used to stop girls, but it's different now. Now everyone thinks you're in a girl gang when you're just out, even when you're not fighting or doing anything. I don't even like fights, but you can't walk away if a mate needs you."
The girls' attitude to violence is not unusual, according to the women's rights group Engender. A UK-wide survey by the group of 14- to 21-year-olds found that one in three girls and one in two boys thought there were circumstances in which it could be acceptable to hit a woman or force her to have sex.
While young women aged 16 to 24 still have the highest risk of becoming victims of aggressive crime in this country, recent statistics show that there has been a significant rise in the numbers turning to violence themselves. Youth Justice Board figures for last year show that, while overall crime rates are falling, there is a 50% rise in violent crime committed by young women.
From 2004-5 to 2007-8, there was a 71% rise in the numbers of young women being electronically tagged and a 25% rise in offences committed by girls aged 10 to 17. It means girls are now responsible for around 21% of offences that reach the courts. At the Old Bailey on Wednesday Hatice Can, a 15-year-old runaway from Belvedere, Kent, and Kemi Ajose, 17, from London, were found guilty of causing the death of Rosimeiri Boxall, a 19-year-old whom they tormented and bullied before encouraging her to leap to her death from a third-floor window in May last year.
After delivering the verdict many of the jury were visibly distressed as Can, only 13 at the time of the killing, broke down in tears and hugged her mother.
Last week it was revealed that a hairdresser, Ashleigh Holliman, had rammed a pint glass into another young woman's face in an unprovoked pub attack. Holliman, from Croxley Green, Hertfordshire, admitted causing actual bodily harm to Jennifer Wilson, 20, who helped track her down via Facebook, one of the social networking sites blamed for facilitating a rise in cyberbullying by girls.
As part of last week's Anti-Bullying Week, the website Bebo, which is used mostly by teenagers and pre-teens, added a new button to all its profiles, allowing users to click and report if they suspect anyone of bullying. The "CEOP (Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre) report button" gives access to advice and provides details of local police, as well as giving the user the option of contacting specially trained CEOP officers via an online reporting mechanism. Jim Gamble, chief executive of the CEOP, said it was a "one-click" access to safety advice and directions to local police phone numbers.
But Paul McKeever, chairman of the Police Federation in England and Wales, believes the police have lost so much discretion in how they deal with girls offending that more and more young women are now ending up going through the criminal justice system. He said it was "very sad indeed" that teachers and parents no longer felt able to deal with discipline and bullying, and that the police were becoming more involved in disputes between young people in a way that would have been previously unthinkable.
"We are a much more aggressive society now, and combined with the access young girls have to alcohol, plus police having to behave in a more automated manner, we are seeing far more young women exhibiting obnoxious drunk behaviour which feeds low-level violence." His own daughter was mugged by a girl gang, he said. "Violent young women are not a figment of the police imagination," he added. "The vast majority of violent crime is still committed by young men, but there is undoubtedly a rising phenomenon here.
"But let's also keep things in perspective," said McKeever. "Violent crime is committed by a tiny minority of youngsters and most children are great. Let's not demonise young people. We don't need to be afraid of them."
The trend towards violence by girls is not just happening in Britain. Other western European nations report upward trends in female crime, while research findings reveal that over the past 10 years the rate for violent offences involving adolescent girls in Canada has increased at twice the rate for boys.
In America violence by young women has been rising steeply for 15 years. Among the first to look at the trend, US psychologist Richard Felson said it challenges the deeply held assumption that violence against women is different from violence against men because it is promoted by sexism or hatred of women. He says the motives for violence are the same for all genders – to gain control or retribution and to promote or defend self-image. But women are still far more likely to be victims of gun crime than perpetrators in the US, although in the UK, by August this year, more girls had been caught carrying guns than in the whole of last year.
In Scotland, where the lord advocate Elish Angiolini last year told the Scottish parliament of an increase in "appalling acts of murderous torture" by women against women and in the number of young girls using knives, officials are linking the rise to binge-drinking and an increase in "ladette" behaviour.
"This can be gang-related or it can just be that there is someone in a group who is quite persecuted by the gang leader or their cohorts," said Angiolini. "That is the kind of machismo behaviour that hitherto we would only see from a male offender." She put the blame firmly on "the rise in consumption of alcohol".
But researchers and psychologists point out that the picture is, they believe, more complicated than that.
Dr Susan Batchelor of Glasgow University has written several academic papers on the subject and she points out that, while the figures for serious assault by girls rose by 138% in Scotland in the 10 years from 1997, violence was involved in just 2% of all the offences committed by young women.
In her latest, soon to be published report, Batchelor questions whether more girls getting arrested or charged over violence was really "the dark side to girl power" or whether in fact it was just an "invisible minority" being held up to be used as a scary example of social change for the worse.
Dr Val Besag, an international educational psychologist who works with the anti-bullying charity Kidscape, said both alcohol and shifting aspirations were key to the rise in female violence.
"Girls traditionally were heavily socialised to be nice to each other and to be ladylike," said Besag. "We would say to girls who fall out 'go away and be friends'. You say to a boy 'fight back' or 'keep away from them'. We socialised girls to stay in horrendous marriages, to work harder.
"But actually, despite all that cultural and emotional pressure, evolutionary science tells us girls are just as violent as men but they are much, much slower, it takes much more, for much longer, for us to get aroused to anger – we procrastinate. But if you throw in drink and drugs, then you shortcut that. And you can't expect to say to young women: "Here, we've lifted the glass ceiling. Go out to work but just have a small sherry while your male colleagues are knocking themselves senseless with drugs and drink. But, of course, women's bodies can't process alcohol terribly well.
"All these horrendous cases we are seeing of girls killing or bullying other girls will have drink or drugs involved. You only have to come across a crowd of drunken girls on a dark night in Newcastle to see the potential for violence."
In London on Friday night, Jozee is helping Tish, who is still upset, to get up. They are going off to go drinking at a friend's house.
"I blame my mum sometimes, because I think I've got no chances because of her, but it's not really her fault," says Tish, "I've just got a temper on me."