Psychology :: Gang signs – UH prof examines the life and lessons of girls and gangs

They take drugs. They are sexually active. They are involved in violence. They are girls who are associated with gangs, and the perception from schools, state agencies and even families is that they are beyond help.

Avelardo Valdez, University of Houston social work and sociology professor and director of the Office for Drug and Social Policy Research at the Graduate College of Social Work, makes the assertion in his latest book, “Mexican American Girls and Gang Violence: Beyond Risk” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

“These girls are now an underclass-second or third generation of marginalized women who don’t know any other kind of life and, without intervention from new policies or programs, are not going to break that cycle,” Valdez said. “These girls need help. If they don’t rise to the top, they are discarded.”

Valdez and his research team spent two years identifying and interviewing 150 girls associated with 26 gangs in San Antonio. Boys from those gangs assisted in identifying the girls who were approached with the consent of their parents or guardians. The ODSPR maintains a research office in San Antonio.

“These girls are not necessarily gang members. They are friends, girlfriends, sisters or neighbors of gang members,” Valdez said.

His book examines conditions that create a sub-culture where the accepted norm to young Mexican American girls on San Antonio’s west side is drug use, violence (intimate partner and other physical violence), delinquency and pregnancy. The life is reinforced by others in gangs or those associated with gangs. He is hopeful that his research adds to an arena that is lacking in such literature. Much of the current research focuses on men and boys in gangs, he said.

Among the findings in his book:

Multiple sex partners, pregnancies and childbirth, crime and multiple drug use are all common among these beyond risk girls,

Girls affiliated with delinquent youth gangs show significant early childhood physical, emotional and sexual trauma,

Among this street-based culture, women are expected to adhere to traditional gender roles, often resulting in victimization if these roles are violated,

Positive family relationships, especially the mother-daughter relationship, were shown to have a protective function for these female adolescents

“My aim is to provide first-hand experiences of the social, cultural and contextual dynamics that are affecting poor, urban, Mexican American, adolescent females living in an era of gangs,” Valdez said. “I’m looking at how each girl’s level of delinquency is related to the quality of their relationships with their parents, siblings, boyfriends, common-law husbands and friends.”

Valdez says the existence of these issues represents a failure of schools, government and extended families that have resulted in a socially disorganized community, creating a climate ripe for gang life and a perception that solutions are too far out of reach to make a difference. One finding from the research indicates that services to nurture mother-daughter relationships may go a long way in preventing risk behaviors in the adolescent girls. In addition, services or training that conveys traditional gender roles without the traditional patriarchal system may also be valuable in stemming the tide of gang association.

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