It’s five years last weekend since the 2011 London riots. The reasons behind the rioting are almost certainly varied and complex, but what’s clear is that the violence shone a light on a group in British society which is often ignored or dismissed by the mainstream, and for a moment we paid attention to the young men in all of our big cities whose lives are characterised by lack of opportunity, poverty, violence, and mistrust.
Because it was largely young men rioting, it was young men’s problems we considered in response. Some blamed a lack of positive male role models, and others an unhealthy machismo and gang culture among young (particularly young black) men. The problems these young men face are intense and significant, and much more needs to be done to address that. But on this fifth anniversary of the riots, we also need to consider the young women in our most disenfranchised communities. Because reaching them is key to reducing social inequality and a sense of alienation in this generation and in generations to come.
The most disenfranchised girls often live very difficult lives, and their prospects are generally bleak. Growing up in poverty significantly increases a girls’ chance of developing mental health problems, particularly if her family life is chaotic, characterised by parental substance misuse or mental health problems, or abuse and violence. Girls with mental health problems, especially those with few resources and support structures, are particularly vulnerable to perpetrators of abuse and child sexual exploitation. Girls in care particularly are often explicitly targeted by such perpetrators.
Those girls who are involved in gangs are often subject to brutal physical and sexual violence and exploitation, they are less likely to be involved in education or employment, and often end up criminalised through storing or hiding weapons or stolen goods for male peers. The peak age of offending for girls in the UK is 15 – review into girls’ offending by the Youth Justice board. Girls who avoid gang membership still often find themselves caught up in crime and on the wrong side of the law, mainly for low-level acquisitive crime such as shoplifting. Many women who commit crime report doing so to help or support someone else – usually a male partner or family member, or where the woman is a mother, for her children.
Findings from the Young Women’s Trust show many more young women are not in employment, education, or training than young men, and when surveyed these young women report high levels of anxiety about their financial situation. A third feel they are limited in their choice of careers, believing that lots of jobs aren’t really suitable for women. Many will be mothers – teenage motherhood is eight times more common among girls from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds.
By and large these young women aren’t rioting. They aren’t perpetrating a massive crime wave – 81% of all violent crimes are still committed by men. But they are struggling, often unnoticed by the rest of society, unless they are being castigated for needing welfare support or blamed for the problems their children face. They are not all angels – having had difficult lives, many of these young women are actively disengaged from society and support. Many will have serious problems with drugs or alcohol, or behave in ways which are antisocial.
But instead of blaming them, and abandoning them and their children to lives blighted by abuse and trauma with no real opportunities for escape, we ought to be helping them. By ensuring our public services are aware of their backgrounds and know how to engage with them, we can build trusting and positive relationships between women and professionals – Agenda’s members do exactly that every day all across the country. If we respect these young women, listen to their experiences, and start treating them as human beings rather than as collections of problems, we can turn lives around.
And this doesn’t just have an impact on the women – it has a huge impact on their children too. By reaching out, and offering real, holistic support tailored to young women’s needs we can break the generational pattern of chaotic upbringings leading to vulnerability, abuse, and complex needs. By providing this sort of support we can overcome some of the barriers to inclusion which made London such a tinderbox in 2011, and hopefully go some way to prevent such violence erupting again.