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While women are an often-overlooked minority when it comes to gang activity, there are actually many female gang members both presently and historically active. Some aspects of gang life are more or less the same for male and female gang members, while other aspects may be very different for women than for men. As gang activity in the United States continues to rise, so does the number of women involved in gang violence and crime, as victims, perpetrators, and often both. But the unfortunate truth is, just as for men, women involved in gangs are often involved for life, whether they want to or not. Gang involvement is far from a minor problem for women, and very few gangs, in reality, are all-male gangs.
Membership is a family matter.
Most females in gangs joined up because of family. A great many of these women were introduced to gang life via their partner, but many more are also brought into the fold by family members like siblings, parents, or close friends. In fact, in many gangs, the family members of a gang member are treated more or less as members themselves, which comes with all the requirements of loyalty and support from those family members. In this way, many women are brought into gang life via their husbands, boyfriends, sons, or parents. Some will be joining gangs in an official capacity, while others find themselves trapped in a membership-by-association. Whichever the path, the unfortunate truth for these women is that, once they're in, there is rarely a way out.
It's hard to know how much of gang membership is made up of women.
One of the most obvious misconceptions about females in gangs is the actual proportion of members who are women. While it is true that the overwhelming majority of active gang members are men, different studies have, at different times and locations, estimated that women make up as little as 3–4% of gangs, or as high as 1/3 to 1/4 of the membership. Part of the reason this is so hard to gauge is because some women may act for and be affiliated with a gang through a family member or partner, but have not formally declared their loyalty or affiliation. Another factor that makes it difficult to gauge the actual number of females in gangs is that law enforcement has a tendency to downplay women's roles in gang activity or report female criminals, and they are more inclined to ignore gang affiliations when a criminal is female.
Women are often used as drug pushers and given more public tasks.
The attitudes, tendencies, and the larger police subculture of law enforcement officers with regards to females in gangs make it hard to estimate the actual percentage of membership. But it has another, more harmful effect as well: putting women in the forefront of public gang activity. Because women are less likely to be associated with gangs during encounters with law enforcement and are also considered to be more likely to get off with lesser charges or warnings, they are often given roles like pushing drugs. As drugs make up the biggest portion of criminal gang activity, this is one of the biggest roles women play in gangs. Despite this perception of women as less of a threat than men, women are far from exempt from the violence and horrors of gang life. In fact, gangs use women and the perception of women to further their own ends with what they see as a lower risk.
They're not always "street kids."
Another common misperception of girls and gangs is that most of the people involved with gangs are from poor, poverty-stricken urban families, which are often already involved in gang life. While it's true that family members are the leading way that new members are initiated into gangs, they don't always come from your stereotypical, urban "street kid" background. In fact, in gang-ridden cities like LA and Chicago especially, successful professionals and even government and law enforcement agents have been discovered to have gang affiliations. For some, of course, these affiliations began in their youth, and, once you're a member of a gang, it may be impossible to then leave, even if you manage to make a successful life for yourself.
Los Angeles is the first, and largest, gang-ridden city.
While many people think of New York City and Chicago as the cities with the biggest gang problem, it's actually Los Angeles, California, that suffers from the most gang activity. In part, this is because Los Angeles is the oldest city with active gangs. This, in turn, is partly due to its proximity to Mexico, as many LA-based gangs have international affiliations with Mexico and other South American countries. In fact, many of the gangs in LA and surrounding areas of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas originated as South American gangs, and still have strong ties in their dealings. With almost 1,500 gangs active in the city today, it's no wonder that gang life affects so many women in these areas. For many who live in particularly gang-stricken areas, there's really no choice: Gangs can offer protection from other gangs while going it alone will put you in danger. Unfortunately, gang membership is no safer.
Natural disasters effect gang activity.
Before Hurricane Katrina, gang activity in New Orleans was rampant. In fact, just before the natural disaster occurred, the homicide rates in New Orleans topped those of even Chicago and NYC, making it the most murder-stricken city in the United States. But, after the disaster struck, gang activity quieted down for a long time, dropping New Orleans closer to the national average in terms of violent crime. Unfortunately, as more time passes, it appears that gang activity is increasing again. New Orleans has yet to return to anywhere near the crime rates it suffered before the disaster, but the rising trend in violent crime—including homicide, armed robbery, and assault—makes for a concerning outlook for the city.
Female gang members have had international influence.
The reality of females in gangs—and anyone in gangs, for that matter—is usually dark, violent, and tragic. The women of gangs have actually had international influence in very unexpected ways. Beyond the influence of the gang itself, the fashion and style of female gang members in LA has recently begun a trend in Japan and nearby East Asian countries. Focused mainly on the style of the female gang members in heavily Hispanic, LA-based gangs, this trend of "female gangs" in Japan is to adopt the baggy clothes, bandanas, and large hoop earrings that are now largely associated with these gangs in the United States. However, these Japanese "gangs" are more a trend than anything else and do not appear to be bringing other aspects of gang culture with them.
Women are less likely to take heat for criminal activity, making them valuable members for many gangs.
It's hard to say how many women are actively involved with gangs, but those who are tend to play particular roles in gangs. Especially in areas of heavy criminal activity, women are thought to be less suspicious than men, making females in gangs very valuable for street crimes like drug pushing and selling. Not only are women less likely to be deemed suspicious and thus caught with anything illegal, but they're also less likely than men to be linked back to their gang. Even outside of gang activity, women are not always suspected of drug trafficking, despite the growing lists of notorious female drug dealers. So, by using women to do much of the work that risks encounters with law enforcement, gangs effectively reduce their likelihood of getting caught and additionally reduce their likelihood of being linked to the crime if they are caught.
There are very few women in biker gangs.
While women are a minority in gang activity across the board, there is one area where they are especially rare: biker gangs. A handful of women may be official members of biker gangs, but it's very rare and often heavily discouraged. Now, this doesn't precisely mean that there are no women affiliated with these gangs, as girlfriends and wives tend to be accepted as such within the group. However, official membership and formal initiation into biker gangs is, even today, limited almost entirely to males.
There's often no way out for women in gangs.
The final fact about females in gangs is one that applies to males, as well: Once you're in, there's often no way out. This is a tragic truth for women in gangs, whether they joined voluntarily or by proximity to a family member or partner. Sometimes, women will try to get away from the gang life by moving away or going to prison. While moving away may sometimes work, many gangs operate nationally or even globally, making this very difficult. As for prison, in areas with a lot of gang activity, and due to overpopulation from the failure of the war on drugs, prisons are full of gang members who band together on the inside for protection and loyalty. As a result, gang affiliation does not disappear within the prison system.