Gangs and gang violence represent a major societal issue across the globe. Whether in developed or developing regions, gangs can be found, in some form, in almost every country. In Latin America, and most critically Central America, gangs are both a significant cause and effect of Gender-Based Violence (GBV). The connection between gangs and GBV is valid, to some degree, wherever gangs develop. As with most GBV, the impacts of gang related GBV are most obvious with girls and young women, but such violence and gendered expectations also greatly affect boys and men.
The Northern Triangle, a region in Central America comprised of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, is the most dangerous region in the world outside of official conflict zones. This is due, in large part, to the gangs which have seemingly taken over parts of these countries and the region. The threat of sexual violence against girls and women in these areas has contributed to the significant migration and refugee crisis currently facing North America. As a young girl in the Northern Triangle, one is faced with daily threats of GBV, whether explicitly or implicitly. Girls and women who are related to male gang members are at risk of becoming targets of GBV, such as sisters and girlfriends who become victims of retaliation violence. Whether it’s from an enemy gang in response to a previous interaction or from one’s own gang ‘teaching the member a lesson’, young women are seen as men’s property and therefore are at risk of sexual gender-based violence and abuse due to such associations. Viewing women and girls as property can also lead to forced prostitution when gang members in prison are ‘provided’ with girls, thus turning young girls into sexual slaves. Filming sexual acts is also used to control girls’ behaviours. Public humiliation, or the threat of it, can be utilised to coerce female gang members directly, or to influence male behaviour when a female relative or girlfriend is targeted. These forms of GBV are threats to all girls and women, whether a gang member herself, related to a male gang member in some way, or completely unrelated to gangs in a personal manner. If a girl chooses to become a gang member, there is also the added element of ‘officially’ joining the gang. While men often have to undergo severe beatings, showing their personal strength by surviving the brute force of senior gang members, women are more often ‘sexed in’ as part of their initiation, allowing any number of male gang members to use them sexually.
These issues have contributed to a significant health and safety challenge facing the Northern Triangle. In 2010, Honduras saw an increase in gang related GBV with a rise in revenge murders where the victim was a female related to a gang member. El Salvador experienced the world’s highest rate of femicide, or targeted murder of women, in 2012. According to El Salvador’s Ministry of Education, an estimated 66,000 girls left or moved schools in 2014 and 2015, largely as a result of feeling unsafe or being directly threatened by gang members. These facts combine with a multitude of other social conflicts affecting the area to create an environment which is inherently unsafe for many of its citizens, most especially girls and young women.
While gang related GBV impacts are most obvious in relation to women and girls, they also strongly affect boys and young men in these areas. GBV results from particular interactions of economic access, histories of violence, and cultural expectations and structures. Machismo cultures, especially, feature predominately patriarchal social structures which emphasise the idea that being a man means being strong, powerful, and dominating over women. Such social expectations create very specific behaviours for men, with very clear gender roles which contribute to men becoming gang members, as well as perpetrators of GBV, and women becoming victims. These gendered expectations can be seen in many different cultures, not just throughout Central America, and they contribute to the cycle of GBV in all countries. Due to the interaction with gang activity, and the growing threat of gang violence in that region, however, this is one issue that has been gaining prominence there. Ultimately, to reduce GBV in gang contexts, socialised gender norms must be addressed first and foremost. So long as aggressive male behaviours are accepted and expected, the domination over women will continue to be reinforced and understood as standard. Boys and men must learn that women are not property and such unequal gender roles contribute to many larger societal issues; girls and women must be given the tools to protect themselves and to create legitimate alternate life opportunities for themselves, so they are not stuck in the same cycle of violence with nowhere to go.
Kelli McGuire is the Lead Associate at the Centre for Gender Rights at LCILP Global. She has an MSc in Emerging Economies and International Development from King’s College London and a BA in Political Science-International Studies from Kansas State University. Her research focuses on gender, youth, and social policies, with particular interest on intersectional analyses of such policies.