ERIC Identifier: ED430069
Publication Date: 1999-05-00
Author: Weiler, Jeanne
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban
Education New York NY.
Girls and Violence. ERIC Digest Number 143.
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
Girls are involved in more violent crime than
they were a decade ago; their murder arrest rate is up 64 percent, for example.
Still, violent crimes accounted for only 3.4 percent of girls' arrests in 1994
(Chesney-Lind & Brown, 1999). Changes in the way girls are charged, as
opposed to the commission of more violent crimes by girls, may explain part of
the increase in arrests for violence. For example, a girl who, in self-defense,
shoves her parents out of the way as she tries to run away is now likely to be
arrested for assault, a criminal offense; previously, she would have been
arrested for the lesser status offense of running away (Chesney-Lind &
Shelden, 1998). Nevertheless, status offenses (considered offenses only because
the perpetrator is a minor), such as running away, prostitution, or curfew
violations, continue to comprise most of girls' arrests, possibly because of a
public tendency to sexualize girls' offenses and attempt to control their
behavior (Chesney-Lind & Shelden, 1998).
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN GIRLS' AND BOYS'VIOLENCE
committed by girls differ significantly from boys' offenses. Boys are two to
three times more likely to carry weapons, and girls are more likely to use
knives than guns, boys' weapon of choice. Girls are more likely than boys to
murder someone as a result of a conflict rather than during a crime, and to
murder and fight with family members (Girls Incorporated, 1996). Girls remain
less likely than boys to be arrested in general, and far less likely to be
arrested for violent crimes (homicide, forcible rape, aggravated assault) and
serious property offenses (burglary, arson). The sex ratio of arrests has
changed very little over the decade, since the recent increases in the arrest of
girls parallel increases in boys' arrests, suggesting that the upward trend
simply "reflects overall changes in youth behavior" (Chesney-Lind & Brown,
1999, p. 176).
GIRLS' PARTICIPATION IN SCHOOL-RELATED VIOLENCE
certainly not all, aggressive acts in school, such as physical fighting,
bullying, and weapon carrying, are carried out by males and aimed at males. One
study reported that while nearly 18 percent of the boys carry a weapon to school
only 5 percent of girls do so (Flannery, 1997). Another showed, however, that in
schools characterized by large numbers of boys carrying weapons, there is a
correspondingly high rate of girls with weapons, although boys may carry guns
while girls carry knives (Webster, Gainer, & Champion, 1993).
CAUSES OF GIRLS' DELINQUENCY AND CRIME PSYCHOSOCIAL THEORIES
In the 1970s violent girls began receiving more
attention from researchers because of the perceived increase in their offenses
and because of the involvement of more women in scholarship. Much of the work
focused on explaining why so few girls and women participate in criminal
activity compared with males, rather than on what motivates females toward crime
Biological differences between males and females were assumed to be a reason
for the crime rate differential. Differences in socialization were also thought
to produce aggressive and independent males and passive, dependent, and
conventional females (Artz, 1998). The increase in female violence was
attributed to the perpetrators' renunciation of femininity and the adoption of
masculine characteristics and values. The women's movement, which fostered
assertiveness and was said to encourage young women to adopt certain "male
behaviors" (drinking, stealing, and fighting), was blamed as well (Adler, 1975).
Subsequent research, including data showing that the increase in female crime
was really not significant, discredited most of these findings (Chesney-Lind
& Shelden, 1998).
SOCIAL AND ENVIRONMENTAL RISK FACTORS
Current research on
adolescent violence and delinquency considers how social class, race, ethnicity,
and culture interact to cause young women to behave violently (Chesney-Lind & Shelden, 1998). It also helps explain why girls join gangs: to develop
skills to survive in their harsh communities and temporarily escape a dismal
future (Campbell, 1991; Chesney-Lind & Joe, 1995).
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
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
Adler, F. (1975). Sisters in crime. New York:
Artz, S. (1998). Sex, power, & the violent school girl. Toronto:
Bottcher, J. (1986). Risky lives: Female versions of common delinquent life
patterns. Sacramento: California Youth Authority.
Campbell, A. (1984, 1991). The girls in the gang. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.
(ED 374 186)
Chesney-Lind, M., & Brown, M. (1999). Girls and violence: An overview. In
D.J. Flannery & C.R. Huff (Eds.), Youth violence: Prevention, intervention,
and social policy (pp. 171-199). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press.
Chesney-Lind, M., & Shelden, R.G. (1998). Girls, delinquency, and
juvenile justice. Belmont, CA: West/Wadsworth.
Chesney-Lind, M., Shelden, R.G., & Joe, K.A. (1996). Girls, delinquency,
and gang membership. In C.R. Huff (Ed.), Gangs in America (pp. 185-204).
Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Flannery, D.J. (1997). School violence: Risk, preventive intervention, and
policy. Urban Diversity Series No. 109. New York: Teachers College, ERIC
Clearinghouse on Urban Education. (ED 416 272)
Girls Incorporated. (1996). Prevention and parity: Girls in juvenile justice.
Indianapolis: Girls Incorporated National Resource Center.
Heimer, K. (1995). Gender, race, and pathways to delinquency. In J. Hagen
& R.D. Peterson (Eds.), Crime and inequality. Stanford: Stanford University
Koroki, J., & Chesney-Lind, M. (1985). "Everything just going down the
drain": Interviews with female delinquents. Report No. 319. Honolulu: Youth
Development and Research Center. (ED 273 696)
Rankin, J.H. (1980). School factors and delinquency: Interaction by age and
sex. Sociology and Social Research, 64, 42-434.
Webster, D.W., Gainer, P.S., & Champion, H.R. (1993). Weapon carrying
among inner-city junior high school students: Defensive behavior versus
aggressive delinquency. American Journal of Public Health, 83, 1604-1608.