Bad girls are often in trouble from the day they were born

Posted on January 30, 2008 in Child & Family Debates, Equality Debates – living – Bad girls are often in trouble from the day they were born
Motivation for female crime very different from that of males
January 30, 2008
Antonia Zerbisias, Living columnist

Girls may have gone wild, but have they gone bad?

No question that, according to a Statistics Canada report last Thursday, the number of females age 12 and up accused of violent crime climbed between 1986 and 2005.

One statistic in particular is worrying. Among girls, says Female Offenders in Canada, the rate at which they’re charged for “serious violent crime” has more than doubled, to 132 teens per 100,000 in 2005 from 60 in 1986. Meanwhile, the rate among adult women climbed to 46 from 25 per 100,000.

For young women, that’s an alarming leap – and it’s been reflected in some shocking news.

From the brutal swarming, beating and drowning death of B.C.’s Reena Virk in 1997 to last fall’s torture by Nova Scotia girls of another teen, girls have been accused of bullying, burning and battering.

In Toronto, one girl, aged 16 – but 15 at the time of the incident – was denied bail last week in connection with the New Year’s Day slaying of 14-year-old Stefanie Rengel. The motive, according to the judge, was “senseless jealousy.”

Forget sweet 16. It’s now ferocious 15. That’s when the charge rate for “crimes against the person” peaks with women.

Of course, in these gotta-have-it times, when the right purse or boyfriend can confer status in the school cafeteria, it’s not entirely surprising that girls will bully or brawl.

But that’s nothing new. Girls have had “catfights” before.

What’s different now is, there are more aggressive female role models out there, from athletes to movie superheroes such as Lara Croft or Kill Bill’s Bride character.

So girls will be boys. They, too, resort to justice with a fist.

But is it that simple?

While Statistics Canada offers no explanation for any of this increase, Silja J.A. Talvi, author of the recently published Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System, writes, “Girls and women enter the criminal justice system with far higher rates of drug abuse, sexual violence, childhood abuse, mental illness, and experiences with homelessness.”

In short, these girls are in trouble from the day they were born.

There’s also what Talvi calls, “The Girlfriend Problem,” the women who get incarcerated because of a men they support or protect.

Experts postulate that what pushes girls into crime is quite different from what motivates boys.

As criminologists and others who study female offenders say, violent girls are often the product of violent homes, and subject to much more stress – from sexual abuse, in particular – than boys.

“Qualitative studies suggest that abusive and failed relationships are a major source of strain in the lives of many female offenders,” note Lisa Broidy and Robert Agnew, co-authors of the research paper “Gender and Crime: A General Strain Theory Perspective.” “This strain in turn has been linked to their criminal behaviour.”

Most startling is the gross over-representation of native women in the StatsCan data: “While only 3 per cent of female adults in Canada are aboriginal, one-quarter of women serving a federal sentence were aboriginal.”

Considering the environments many of these young women grow up in, in extreme poverty, fuelled by alcohol, and often in foster homes or institutions, they have all the strikes against them.

Troubled girls also often run away to escape abusive homes. They end up on the street. That can lead to prostitution, substance abuse and crime to feed bad habits – as well as more abuse from men.

Girls, seeking the kind of support and connection they don’t get at home, will also often hook up with gangs.

Of course, this happens with boys as well. The difference is, unloved and abused girls seek out the nurturing environment – even if it’s not nurturing at all – provided by sisters in crime or pimps, in ways that boys seem to manage without.

Problem is, there’s a correlation between young female offenders and adolescent motherhood. Chances are the dysfunctional behaviour will just get passed on to the next generation.

Still, let’s not push the panic button. Girl crime is not like boy crime. Despite the increases, which have levelled off and even dropped since the early 1990s, women are nowhere near men when it comes to rap sheets.

Not only does StatsCan show that men are five times more likely to commit crimes, they’re also more likely to be violent, to cause more grievous injury, to face multiple charges and to repeatedly offend.

“Females were far less likely than males to commit homicide, robbery, sexual assault, breaking and entering, motor vehicle theft or mischief,” says Statistics Canada. “Rates among females were anywhere from 7 to 10 times lower, depending on the offence.”

Where females get most felonious is shoplifting, fraud (such as bad cheques), common assault, bail violations and, of course, prostitution.

But girl crime is more of a man-bites-dog story than a man-robs-bank tale. So it grabs the headlines.

Not to excuse these offences – and just for the record, I think prostitution should be decriminalized – but they strike me as, mostly, crimes of poverty. That’s another “strain” on women that leads to criminal charges. Girls simply have access to fewer financial resources.

All of which suggests a bad girl is mostly a sad girl.

She’s in trouble because she was looking for love in all the wrong places – or she was never loved at all.

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