Often a forgotten element of the notorious and historic gang culture in South Africa, the role of women amongst these groups is just as important as any other in shaping the lifestyle of the thousands of people associated with it.

Whilst we are consistently and frequently encountered by the online or televised statements of young men seeking to liberate themselves through violence and protest, there are other parts of the lifestyle that are just as poignant when it comes to creating yourself a reputation and a power status.

Extremely few women involved would ever take to the bloody battles that claim so many lives in South Africa throughout the year, but reputation and power is just as important to these women as it is for their husbands and boyfriends who often control the environment around them.

One of the obvious points why women’s roles in gang culture often slip under the radar is that fact that it is common knowledge that none have a noticeable amount of power amongst the gangs they work with. The men of their gangs hold the power and reputation. This is a point made by researchers by those at NICRO and the Institute of Criminology who mention that along with a lack of power for women in gangs in South Africa they also have a massive lack of respect for other people inside or outside their lifestyle. It is down to this also that women are often dismissed when it comes to gang activity: “Although the number of women drawn into gangs is increasing, they hold no power…Female gangsters have very little respect for anybody and seldom get respect from others”.
Quite simply it is almost single-handedly down to this fact that female contribution to gang culture is either missed or purposefully discredited instantly. So why then is it important to understand female roles amongst these groups? How do women get involved with these dangerous individuals?

The incredibly high crime rate in South Africa, particularly on the outskirts of the major cities such as Cape Town, Pretoria and Johannesburg see a lot of women in the country become extremely vulnerable. Last year protestors took to the streets of Johannesburg with the rape rate in the country rising by 1.5 percent over a 12-month period. This meant that 127 people in every 100,000 South Africans had been the victim of sexual assault in the last year.

Furthermore, a lot of rape offences are believed to be going unreported. It is believed that 1 in every 25 counts of rape go reported with the other 24 remaining silent for fear of further attacks.

It is alarming statistics in the country such as the rape count that see women often enter gang culture. Why? Well first of all it can be for something as simple as closer protection from a boyfriend or husband. Whilst they may not have any initial criminal intention the possibility of protection from a powerful gang or figure from the dangers of the streets can offer plenty of motivation. Paradoxically however, a lot of these cases happen when women have lost close relatives and friends due to gang violence. Despite their knowledge of the dangerous nature a relationship could entail, true companionship is more than possible in a lot of cases.

From this reason can stem the thought from such women that they can use the power and reputation of their husbands and boyfriends to their own advantage. Whether there is a true companionship between the two, quite often materialistic desire will arise either way as these women recognise that they have the access to an easier and more luxurious lifestyle than their more vulnerable counterparts outside the gang.

This materialistic desire is just as apparent in the men of these gangs too. If an up-and-coming gang member earning his status is seen to have an attractive, “showpiece” girlfriend, it may well go a long way toward him earning his status as a successful and prominent figure of the group, in which case these women can be held up by these men as trophies to boost their reputation and egos. This is particularly apparent when one woman may be desired by several members of one gang or many gangs. This is something that interests researchers a lot more, as more and more recent studies conducted on South African gang culture point to the idea that the desire for a prominent woman in these male gang members’ lives is often motivating further gang crime in cities and also nationwide.

In the second part of this article, I’ll be exploring other key reasons that see so many more females in South Africa becoming a part of the ever-present gang culture in the country, as well as getting words from a former female gang member on the Western Cape.

The other question to ask is what is being done to combat this problem nationwide with the newest measures in law enforcement and through the efforts of local communities? This will also be the subject of part two in an issue that, whilst constantly being overlooked, is becoming more important to understand in modern times.