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Cape gangs use women and girls to do their dirty work, psychology researcher finds

Imanuella Muller's research has uncovered the role played by women and girls in Western Cape gangs.
Imanuella Muller's research has uncovered the role played by women and girls in Western Cape gangs.
Image: Stellenbosch University

Gangs in the Western Cape use women and girls as young as 12 to do their work for them, according to research conducted at Stellenbosch University.

“Women play various roles in gangs. These include being information carriers, hiding and handling contraband, ‘trapping’ rival male gang members, selling drugs and taking part in robberies,” said Imanuella Muller, who did the research while studying for a master’s degree in psychology.

“This clearly shows women are, in fact, part of core gang activities and do not just exist on the periphery of gangs.”

Muller studied how girls and women in the Western Cape are recruited and initiated into gangs and what roles they go on to fill.

She also tried to find out what could be done to prevent them from joining gangs as well as how women who want to leave a gang or who have already chosen to do so can be supported.

Muller interviewed women who have been involved in gang culture and who participated in an intervention project that offered them a new lease on life. 

She said her findings show some girls are deceived or seduced into becoming involved with gangs through socialising with or dating gang members. 

“Gangs sometimes target women who are addicted to drugs or who come from family backgrounds of financial wealth and standing in communities in order to utilise their financial resources and status for the benefit of the gang,” she said.

“A common pathway into gangs is through becoming romantically involved with a male gang member. Young women may be attracted and drawn to gangs because of the easy access to and availability of drugs.”

Muller said gangs use fear and intimidation to recruit women and young girls and to keep them trapped in gangs.

“One of the participants mentioned that when socialising with gang members and being in gangs, women are exposed to many details regarding the activities of gangs,” she said.

“Having this knowledge of gang activities as an outsider puts the gang at risk [so] they need to then become a part of the gang to prove they can be trusted. Resisting that pressure puts them and their families at risk.”

Muller said it was important for women to prove their loyalty and commitment to the gang, and they often did this by “luring or seducing a male member from a rival gang who may be on their gang’s ‘hit’ list so it becomes easier for their gang to kill him”.

It is difficult for a woman to leave a gang, said Muller, especially if she has children fathered by a gang member or is financially dependent on a gang member.

“They can leave if they have the necessary support systems in place — a safe place to stay, financial means to support themselves and their children — although sometimes this can also mean leaving their homes and families behind to pursue a new life in a different town or city.

“These women need supervised and safe recreational clubs or groups where they can be involved in exciting yet healthy and constructive activities and experience a sense of belonging and community, mental health services, counselling and therapy, mentorship and career guidance programmes, educational opportunities as well as funding opportunities for those who want to complete high school, study further and become skilled and find a job.

“Drug addiction is a common challenge among women in gangs, which requires specialised treatment and management.

“In the absence of viable economic opportunities, the likelihood of returning to a gang is very high.”