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Girls and Violence
Author: Jeanne Weiler, Institute for Urban and Minority Education, Teachers College
Girls' involvement in delinquency and crime, though still less than boys', appears to have increased significantly in the last two decades. There is, however, little knowledge about the causes of girls' violence, and few studies have been conducted on young women's crime and delinquency. Meda Chesney-Lind and her associates have undertaken the most comprehensive analysis of these studies. They have provided much insight into this complex issue, showing significant differences between violent acts by girls and boys. This digest reviews current research on girls' delinquent and violent behavior, the factors contributing to it, and effective programming strategies to prevent it.
The Scope of Girls' Delinquency and Violence
The Nature of Girls' Crime
Differences Between Girls' and Boys' Violence
Girls' Participation in School-Related Violence
Causes of Girls' Delinquency and Crime
Social and Environmental Risk Factors
Women jailed for crimes, compared with their male counterparts, are much more likely to report previous sexual or physical abuse, ranging from 40 percent to 70 percent of respondents in various surveys (Artz, 1998; Chesney-Lind & Shelden, 1998; Koroki & Chesney-Lind, 1985). Violent young women are more likely to come from troubled or violent families. Their home life, characterized by poverty, divorce, parental death, abandonment, alcoholism, and frequent abuse, leaves them quick to anger, distrust, and revenge (Artz, 1998; Koroki & Chesney-Lind, 1985).
Girls from poor families may seek recognition by adopting a "bad girl" image upon finding that their college aspirations will go unrealized, as they are unable to gain status through white middle-class means (i.e., schooling, careers). But they also embrace traditional gender role expectations for the future: marriage, support by a man, a large family, and work in stereotypically female jobs. They think that men should be strong and assertive, and women passive and nonviolent (Koroki & Chesney-Lind, 1985). Such beliefs may hold young women in abusive romantic relationships and raise their risk of engaging in delinquent and violent acts (Chesney-Lind & Shelden, 1998).
Artz (1998) hypothesizes that a major factor in girls' aggression toward other girls is a general negative view of females based on a personal low sense of self-worth, resulting from sexual abuse and an internalized belief in women's inferiority. Bottcher's study (1986) of young African American and Latina women incarcerated for serious offenses identified additional factors which propelled them toward violence: leaving home or being kicked out; considerable free time without adult supervision; and an "inadvertent drift" into violence and crime as their lives began to fall apart.
In general, school failure increases young people's risk for violence and delinquency (Artz,1998), although poor school performance appears to have a stronger effect on girls than boys (Rankin, 1980). While high grades and positive self-esteem seem to depress girls' involvement in violence and delinquency, boys' high grades raise their self-esteem, creating favorable orientations to risk-taking and thus greater delinquency (Heimer, 1995).
Implications for Interventions
To serve young women effectively, programs must develop culturally-sensitive, gender-specific approaches. They must take into account the fact that girls' problems are often gender related (i.e., sexual abuse, male violence, role in the family, occupational inequality, early motherhood), and must develop gender-specific approaches. Unfortunately, funding for programs addressing delinquent girls' unique needs has been low: in 1975, for example, only $1.00 of every $4.00 donated by corporations was spent on programs for girls (Chesney-Lind & Shelden, 1998), and a recent review of youth program evaluations showed that only 2.3 percent of delinquency programs served girls only.
A review of the few existing programs effective with at-risk young women suggests that three common elements combine to support them in all facets of their lives (Chesney-Lind & Shelden, 1998). First, a comprehensive counseling component addresses the multiple problems of delinquent and at-risk young women, including sexual abuse and violence in teen relationships. Second, successful programs include educational and occupational support. Third, they address the needs of young women not able to remain with their families. Further, they provide young women with access to caring adults and organized community activities.
Girls Incorporated (1996) has recently published a review of promising programs which target delinquent and at-risk girls. Effective programs include many Girls Incorporated programs which are sponsored nationally. Examples include Friendly PEERsuasion, which addresses issues such as helping girls to avoid substance abuse; Preventing Adolescent Pregnancy, which teaches strategies for avoiding early pregnancy through better parent-daughter communication and postponing sexual activity, and provides health care; Operation SMART, which enhances science and technology skills; and FUTURE (Females Unifying Teens to Undertake Responsible Education), which provides peer support in such areas as substance abuse, sexual and physical abuse, and gang involvement. Girls Incorporated has also identified local programs whose effectiveness results from customization for the local female population.
Finally, because male violence and aggression against young women are often a factor in female delinquency and violence, separate programs need to be developed for aggressive and violent men and boys. This would minimize the risk of female victimization and, in turn, reduce the risk of girls' participation in violence.
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