When Girls ‘Go Country’: Criminal exploitation of younger women and girls

By Dr Shona Morrison of The Open University and Daryl Baguley of the Diane Modahl Sporting Foundation.

Welcome to the fourth blog in our month-long series in celebration of International Women’s Day.  Today’s blog seeks to highlight a lesser-known form of violence against young women and girls – exploitation of vulnerable girls in the context of drug dealing and organised crime groups, known in the UK as ‘County Lines’ drug dealing.

The emergence of ‘County Lines’

In the past decade, infamous cases of Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) and grooming in areas like Rotherham, Rochdale, and Oxford, highlighted the range of environments outside of the home which can lead to younger females falling victim to groups of (mainly older) men.  Now a new threat is emerging.  There is growing evidence of young women and girls being exploited through ‘County Lines’ drug dealing leading to the risk of physical and sexual violence.  The County Lines model involves organised crime gangs based mainly in cities grooming children and other vulnerable people to carry out activities in support of their drug dealing operations.  Young people are encouraged to travel to provincial coastal, or rural, areas to deliver and sell drugs, often staying in so-called ’safe-houses’, posing considerable risk to their immediate and long-term physical and mental health.

Until recently, the focus on exploitation through County Lines has been mainly on young men and boys, however, there is growing evidence that girls are being increasingly targeted and subjected to additional forms of harm.

The role of girls in gangs and County Lines

The role of females in criminal activity which is traditionally seen as the preserve of males has been largely under-researched.  Research on young women and girls is in even shorter supply.  Although there is some research on girls’ involvement in street gangs, for instance, the literature remains dominated by research on young males.  In the context of County Lines, early research did identity exploitation of females on the periphery of the industry.  For instance, there were cases of young girls forced to attend parties in safe houses where they were expected to provide sexual rewards to young male ‘runners’.  Video footage taken at these events may then be used to blackmail and further intimidate the young females into silence.

However, more recent research implies that young females are beginning to replace males as the ‘foot soldiers’ of County Lines.  The relative ‘invisibility’ of girls and young women allows them the travel largely unnoticed on rail networks across the country, making them ideal targets for drug dealing gangs.  Some researchers compare the grooming of young girls into county lines drug dealing, and the strategies subsequently used to maintain control over them, as akin to ‘coercive control’ – a phrase more commonly found in the domestic abuse literature to describe a pattern of behaviour where someone exerts power over their partner through fear and control.

The 2018 publication of the Government’s Serious Violence Strategy (Home Office – Serious Violence Strategy, April 2018 (publishing.service.gov.uk) marked the beginning of efforts to intervene in the harm caused by County Lines, although it was recognised at that time that most of the violence was by males against males.  Programmes aimed at young females at risk of county lines have been a lower priority and, subsequently, slower to develop.  Preventing this form of abuse against girls must become a higher priority within education and other sectors before girls ‘going country’ becomes the latest exploitation scandal of the 21st Century.


We Move – A mentoring project for young people at risk of violence and child criminal exploitation

Dr Shona Morrison from The Open University is conducting an evaluation of a mentoring programme aimed at young males and females considered to be at risk of violence or exploitation by organised crime groups.  The programme, named ‘WeMove’, is funded by Greater Manchester Police and delivered by two organisations in the Greater Manchester area.  Daryl Baguley is one of the programme coordinators delivering WeMove, through the Diane Modahl Sporting Foundation (DMSF) (Home – dmsf.org.uk).  DMSF work with young people across areas of deprivation, empowering them to fulfil their potential.

Daryl has implemented a unique approach to supporting girls referred to WeMove to reduce their vulnerability to criminal exploitation.  Due to the number of mentoring referrals received through one school, Daryl and her team set up a ‘girls group’ which comes together once a week to talk and learn important life skills which empower them to have the confidence to say ‘no’.  Daryl is convinced of the importance of gender-specific approaches to dealing with youth violence.  Girls, she says, need a ‘safe space’ to talk and seek advice about issues of importance to them: “The stories that come from the girls can be frightening. They would share stories about being used by their boyfriends to transport items for them because they know they are less likely to get stopped, not recognising any of the dangers this carries for themselves or the manipulation which had been used over them.”  Daryl believes their issues often come down to lack of knowledge about healthy relationships, low self-esteem and confidence.  She says, “It is clear the girls do not always understand consent and didn’t recognise the signs of coercive and controlling behaviour, leaving them in danger of criminal exploitation, sexual exploitation and trauma”.

With both mentoring and financial support from WeMove, the girls decide on suitable topics and activities for the group.  So far, they have requested sessions on body positivity, Andrew Tate, racism, social media awareness, positive relationships, consent, gang awareness and bullying.  Some have also chosen to undertake First Aid or beauty industry qualifications, while others are themselves working towards gaining peer mentoring qualifications.  Daryl highlights the reciprocal nature of the girls group saying “The conversations we have with the girls are invaluable.  The girls give us a real insight into the challenges and barriers our girls are facing daily.  We have seen an improvement in school attendance and drop in after-school detentions.  The feedback we have had from parents and the school has been extremely positive.  Girls have also left abusive relationships and have started to realise their own worth.  The transformations have been amazing to see.”

For further information about the WeMove programme, or the Open University’s Evaluation of programme, please contact Dr Shona Morrison or Daryl-Anne Baguley 

Happy International Women’s Day

We are really pleased to be celebrating International Women’s Day with this blog series. In today’s blog (the second in this series) we are going to be sharing details of two key research projects that concern the policing of domestic abuse.

Historically, the relationship between domestic abuse survivors and the police has been fraught with complexities with debates about whether domestic abuse should be seen as a private or a public matter. What victims want when they call the police and what action police take can often be a contentious issue. Due to dissatisfaction with the service police provide, survivors in domestic abuse often disengage from the process. At the point of disengagement, police have some options available to them which brings us to another key point of debate in this area- choice and control. Due to a policy of ‘positive action’ in domestic abuse cases, the police can take a case to court even when the survivor disengages from the process. It is at this point that survivors often report feeling that the choice of what happens has been taken away from them and that the control the perpetrator had over them has now been replicated by the police and wider criminal justice system.

Engagement in domestic abuse is one of the key foci at the OU and today we are going to be sharing details about two research projects the team have been busy working on recently.

Survivor (Dis)Engagement Study

The first of these projects explored the issue of survivors’ decisions to engage or withdraw from the police in domestic abuse cases.  We know that domestic abuse is much more likely to be perpetrated by men against women.  We also know that the most common reason for these types of cases to be dropped is because survivors either do not provide a statement or later withdraw it. Worryingly, His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary Fire and Rescue Services (the body responsible for monitoring the performance of the police in England and Wales) raised concerns about the increasing number of domestic abuse cases that were being closed due to survivors not supporting the investigation.  They were concerned because it was not always possible to tell if survivors had actually been spoken to about the decision to close the case.  But it was not just the Inspectorate who were concerned about this, in 2019, police forces in the Centre or Policing Research and Learning at the Open University were asked what issues they felt needed to be addressed (in relation to violence against women and girls) and they identified survivor engagement as the number one issue.  It was because of this that the Centre for Policing Research and Learning funded a large project to understand how, when and why survivors of domestic abuse disengage from police and how, in turn, police officers encourage and understand survivor engagement.

The research was led by Dr Lis Bates with support from Dr Anna Hopkins, Dr Shona Morrison and Dr Holly Taylor-Dunn in the policing team at the OU. The research included data collected during 2019-2021.  The team analysed over 95,000 domestic abuse incidents across seven police forces, 140 in-depth police case files, 31 survivor interviews, and focus groups with 15 police officers from three forces.

The research found that survivor disengagement remains the most common reason given by police for closing domestic abuse cases without charge – with 58% of survivors withdrawing – a far higher rate than for general crime.  There were certain factors that seemed to be associated with the likelihood of a survivor disengaging including:

  • Cases where someone else reported the incident
  • Cases where the incident was reported within 24 hours of it happening
  • Cases where the survivor and perpetrator were living together.

Importantly, this research has shown that the vast majority of survivors who disengage do so at the very start of the police process – before, at, or just after the initial police response.

But we were really interested to understand the reasons why survivors disengage so early on and by analysing the police case files, we identified two key themes.  The first of these relates to survivors who disengaged because their needs had been met by the initial police response.  For example, some survivors called the police because they wanted help for the perpetrator’s mental health, while some just needed the police to ensure their immediate safety and de-escalate the situation, and for others, they just wanted the police to make a record of the incident without taking it any further.

The second theme relates to barriers that prevent survivors engaging with the police.  This included survivors who were fearful of the suspect and the repercussions of making a statement, delays in the initial police response which meant they lost confidence in the police, a poor initial response from the police where survivors felt blamed, and finally, survivors who felt the criminal justice process had ‘taken over’ and they had lost control of the situation.

We are still working on the analysis of this research and there will be more we can say about survivor engagement (and disengagement) in domestic abuse cases.  For now, what these early findings suggest is that we should consider what survivors need from the police, whether the police are able to meet those needs and if not, what needs to change.

Evidence-led prosecutions study

The second project we want to tell you about is concerned with something called ‘evidence-led prosecutions’.  An evidence-led prosecution is one where the victim either does not support the prosecution or withdraws their support and the case goes ahead anyway.  These types of prosecution have been used in the United States since the 1990’s but there is still debate about how appropriate they are in cases of domestic abuse.  For example, some people argue that by taking the decision away from survivors, we are simply replacing the control of the abuser with control by the State.  However, other people feel that by placing the decision to prosecute with victims, this actually puts them at greater risk of intimidation and pressure from the perpetrator.  In terms of what survivors feel about them, some studies in the US suggest victims are largely supportive of ELPs, but there is also research that suggests survivors are not necessarily safer as a result.

Although these types of prosecutions have been advocated in the UK since 2009, there is currently no evidence from the UK to tell us how and when they are used by the police, which cases are selected for prosecution by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and how they impact on victims.

This project is being led by Dr Anna Hopkins and Dr Holly Taylor-Dunn and involves an in-depth analysis of 100 police case files (50 that were considered as ‘evidence-led’ and 50 typical cases).  The research also included interviews with CPS prosecutors and victims whose case was taken forward as an evidence-led prosecution.  The research is due to complete at the end of March 2023 and we hope to be able to share findings soon.

If you are interested in hearing more about either of these studies, do please contact us at: