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.”