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'You do it because you think you love the guy'

Abi Billinghurst, Founder & Director
Abi Billinghurst, Founder & Director

Street gangs exploit and abuse a growing number of girls across London. Neil Baker meets a group of young women who are using their experiences to turn the tide

Joanna is a fizzing cocktail of ideas and attitude. She keeps apologizing for dominating the conversation. In her green parka, hoody, and T-shirt that says, “For young women, By young women”, the 19-year-old north Londoner is taking part in a lively discussion about how girls are affected by street gangs.

Joanna was a vulnerable girl when she got pregnant at 15 by a gang member. She and her baby were put in foster care; from there she was able to break out of the relationship. “You get involved with a boy, you end up having sex, you have a baby,” Joanna tells the group, who nod in recognition. “And then your life changes. You do everything for him. You do it because you think you love the guy.”

Urban gangs have long exploited young women. They use them to move drugs, store weapons and hold cash because they’re less likely to be stopped by the police. Sexual abuse and rape are common. Girls get passed around as the playthings for gang “elders”, made to have sex with young boys as part of their initiation, used as “honeytraps” to lure rivals to places where they can be attacked. The impact of gangs on young women is extensive and often goes unrecognised.

Police, social workers and other professionals have a legal responsibility to protect these girls from abuse. But too often they fail. A 2016 survey from the Home Office found the extent of sexual or physical violence against women and girls affiliated with gangs is only getting worse. Young girls are particularly vulnerable in London. Researchers heard more reports of gang-affected girls under 11 in the capital than anywhere else. Some girls were younger than nine.

Today Joanna is meeting a group of six young women who want things to change. They’ve all experienced gang life first hand – not necessarily as active gang members, but as girls who grew up in areas where gang life is an everyday menace. They have a unique perspective on what it takes to keep girls away from gangs, or to get them out if they become involved.

The venue used to be a school; Joanna came here once when there was a youth club. “What’s going on in this world?” she says. “Everything’s closing down!” The ceilings are high. The brick walls are painted white. There are shelves stuffed with children’s toys. Some of the women have brought their babies. One breastfeeds hers as the conversation drifts between drugs, knives, violence and men.

But the vibe is friendly and constructive, and that’s down to the charm and skill of our host and facilitator, Abi Billinghurst. Abi is the founder of a social enterprise, ABIANDA, which is working to empower gang-affected young women. It offers one-to-one mentoring to women in Islington as part of its Star Project. It then trains some of them to deliver workshops where the police, social workers and other professionals hear what it’s like to be a young woman surrounded by gang culture and how they can better support young women.

Joanna has come today to find out how she might get more involved. She listens intently and fires off multiple questions as Abi talks the group through her plan to run a series of seminars where the young women will share their insights with professionals. “I don’t know who these ‘professionals’ are,” interrupts Joanna. “But we need to help them understand why this happens, because they have no experience of it.”

Some of the women here today have worked with ABIANDA before. They tell Joanna and the other newcomers about some workshops they ran in Liverpool. “Professionals tend to stick to what they’ve read in the books – it’s annoying,” says Eavie, a bright 21-year-old in a woolly hat topped with a pompom the size of a peach.

“What’s important for me is that when I deliver training they realize that it’s changed from what they read years ago. That’s my goal,” she continues. “They always say, ‘I did not know this. I did not realise that’. The group I worked with, they loved it.”

Eavie is an ambitious woman with plans to start a construction business. In Liverpool she told her audience about some of the challenges she’s had to overcome. At school she was bullied and mental health problems followed. At 16 she was raped and her life ran out of control. She tried to kill herself three times. Then she met ABIANDA, and started turning things around.

"When I shared my story in Liverpool, there were a few tears in the room,” Eavie says. “But if I share my story, they can see I'm just like the young women that they’re trying to work with.”

Stacey, 21, has also delivered workshops for ABIANDA. During our lunch break, she talks more about the impact of gangs, and more recently of ABIANDA, on her life. "I used to be fearsome, two or three years ago. I've changed," she says. But it’s hard to convince some people. Stacey feels the local council is hassling her unfairly on housing issues, and that her neighbours see her as a threat. She says the police have kicked her door down three times in the last two years, looking for drugs, knives and gang associates – all things she says are out of her life now.

It takes resilience to move on – something Stacey’s building with ABIANDA. “When you’re helping other people to make a change it gives you more confidence in yourself,” she says. “It makes you feel that you are doing something instead of doing nothing. People listen to you and take you seriously. That’s a good feeling. It makes a difference.”

The day is over and Joanna is packing up her stuff. “Today’s made me really want to get involved,” she says. “I think this looks like a path for me. Making a change for other girls? That really appeals.”

ABIANDA receives funding from The London Community Foundation. The names of the young women in this story have been changed. For more information: www.abianda.com

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