The number of violent acts committed by girls has been on a steady rise in the United States for the past decade. Isis Sapp-Grant, a former female gang leader, believes she can help to reduce the trend.
Sapp-Grant recalled her days as a female gang leader in New York City, saying, “It made me feel good, high, and powerful – visible when for the most part I felt very invisible and powerless.”
Sapp-Grant now holds a master’s degree in social work and has committed her life to helping girls in gangs. “People don’t realize how serious it really is,” she says.
Researchers have attributed the increase in violence perpetrated by girls to several factors, including increased child abuse, heightened levels of street violence and television violence, and society’s changing gender roles. Child abuse may be one of the most influential factors, considering that almost 70 percent of female juvenile offenders have been victims of child abuse.
“They felt like it was okay to be violent if someone is going to be violent to them,” said Jennifer Tucker, Vice President of the Center for Women Policy Studies in Washington. “One of them said, ‘If you wait for them to do it to you, you’re already the victim.'”
Sapp-Grant believes that the primary source of the problem is really an inherent sense of powerlessness and futility. “It was acted out everyday in front of me,” said Sapp-Grant. “You had crazy people all around. You’ve got idiots hanging on the corner, and drug dealers were the ones making the money. It just didn’t seem that there was any legit way out of it. We just learned how to become a part of that environment.”
She sees the same feelings among the young women she works with now. Many of them want to leave their gangs, but are afraid of being killed by rival gang members.
John Galea, the former head of the New York Police Department’s street gang intelligence unit says, “Not that much has been written about girls and violence, but a lot of new problems come up when females enter the equation.”
In order to remedy the lack of information, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, part of the US Justice Department, is arranging a set of guidelines and “best practices” for handling female offenders.