Development & Aid, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

Female Presence Growing in Brazil’s Gangs

Fabiana Frayssinet

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jun 23 2010 (IPS) - They are no longer simply the girlfriends of gang members. Women have increasingly become members themselves of Brazil’s youth gangs over the past decade — though they have yet to reach the leadership positions of their male colleagues.

Those are the conclusions of the book “Gangues, Gênero e Juventudes” (Gangs, Gender and Youth) published this month by the Latin American Technological Information Network (RITLA), with participation from Central Única das Favelas (CUFA, a movement of young slumdwellers), and the support of the Secretariat of Human Rights.

The study’s coordinator, Miriam Abramovay, told IPS that 10 years ago, when she investigated the issue for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the female youths generally played an “ornamental” role in the gangs.

Today, in contrast, the young women “are taking over spaces through more active participation, seeking respect and visibility” in these organisations, states the study.

The researchers did not find — as they thought they might — women-only gangs. But among the 13 groups they studied in Brasilia, the nation’s capital, they discovered that the women “do not have the same subordinate role they did 10 years ago.”

Abramovay noted that there is a “female sector,” which is defined within the gang structure as “group F”.

The women are no longer limited to “taking care of their men” or “carrying his weapon,” as before, she said. They participate in group actions, like painting graffiti (“pichar” in gang slang) on public or private buildings to mark their territory against incursions from rival gangs.

However, like the society they are rebelling against, “there are also gender differences” within these groups, which are expressed primarily in the power structure, said Abramovay.

Female participation in youth gangs and criminal organisations was a topic for discussion at the 4th Biennial Meeting of States on Small Arms and Light Weapons, held last week at UN headquarters in New York.

The motives for joining gangs are common in Brazil: the desire for prestige, recognition and identification with a group. Through these groups, individuals also express values like courage and loyalty.

Although women usually do participate in their gang’s general meetings, they also have their own.

According to Abramovay, while the men talk about problems like their fights and revenge against other gangs, the women often discuss more “specific” gender issues, such as “how to gain respect within the group” or who the women can and cannot date within the gang.

The researcher pointed out that the gender terminology used for referring to these women has two sides.

Some are called “donas de rocha” (literally, owners of the stone), which refers to their strength as women, and implies respect.

Those who might betray them are known as “cabrinhas” (young female goats), and those who seduce members of rival gangs are known as “little homemakers.”

“As for the gender question, bravery and courage are taken as male traits. Women, meanwhile, can incorporate attributes of courage and loyalty, though there is a certain resistance and even distrust about the female ability to play that role,” according to the study.

Abramovay makes several different readings of the matter. On the one hand, it can be seen that this “culture of violence” and “spectacle-based society,” held in high esteem by young people, is no longer only masculine.

“It’s a male culture that demonstrates power, and now the girls want it too,” she said.

“It is distressing that girls are in the gang, but even more so is that we have this new model of the spectacle, in which the ideal is violence, being ‘macho’,” she said.

Unlike the youth gangs of other countries, like those in Central America, in general the Brazilian gangs have not turned into crime rings, although some of their members might steal or sell drugs, she said.

According to the study, their activities, beyond the graffiti, centre on gang wars, drug use, parties and the Internet.

The investigation found that gang territory has gone beyond physical geography, expanding into the virtual world, where it is possible to incite gang wars, for example, by posting provocative photos of drugs and weapons.

Max Maciel, CUFA coordinator in Brasilia, told IPS that to successfully insert these young people into broader society it is important that the government provide opportunities for them to “show off,” through arts or sports, making the most of whatever talents they possess.

In his view, instead of trying to quash them, the authorities should find ways to develop the positive qualities of many of these youths, such as their leadership abilities.

Maciel works with gang members in alternative projects, and believes they “want the prestige and the visibility” that society otherwise does not give them.

The social activist recommends “any policy, public or private… that gives them the right to adrenaline without the risk of death,” through cultural activities in which they can express themselves and by providing tools that allow them to enter the workforce.

Gang activities entail risk: the members might fall from a building they are painting a graffiti, may be arrested or even get shot by a home or business owner, he said.

To prevent the youths from turning completely to crime, the government needs to develop preventative policies, agrees Abramovay. These should include projects for social inclusion and alternative spaces for recreation, education and job training.

The public policies should include both men and women, but some gender- specific policies are also needed, said Abramovay.

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