By Rebecca Ley
Fighting her way back to consciousness, Jane* struggled to work out where she was. Everything was black. She was cold and her head throbbed.
Where was she? The last thing she remembered was going for a drink with a girlfriend at a pub near her home in south London. They had been chatting, everything was fine and then… nothing.
With horror, Jane realised she was blindfolded and tied, naked, to a chair.
Somewhere in the room she could hear her “friend” plus other voices – ones belonging to men she didn’t know.
What happened to Jane over the next five hours of that night, four-and-a-half years ago, defies comprehension.
The now 22 year old was raped repeatedly by three men. She was burned with a cigarette lighter on her arms and legs, punched and slapped. Her pleas for mercy were ignored. Jane’s “crime”? She’d slept with a member of one of the gangs that operated in the area. When his girlfriend found out, she spiked Jane’s drink and took terrible revenge.
Jane was a victim of gangland retribution, where sex is used as a weapon in a war that’s waging unchecked in Britain’s underworld.
Before her ordeal, she had been one of thousands of vulnerable teen girls passed from one gang member to another for sex.
There are also cases in which girls are raped by rival gang leaders to get back at each other.
The problem is reaching worrying levels, with current estimates suggesting 10,000 girls and young women are at risk of sexual violence at the hands of gang members.
The Government has pledged £1.2million to help tackle the issue and a two-year inquiry into young people at risk from gang life and violence was launched late last year.
Deputy Children’s Commissioner Sue Berelowitz is heading up the inquiry. She says: “The stories we get are heart-rending – of girls being kidnapped, held at gun-point, threatened with being what the public would understand as gang-raped.”
More often than not, though, these cases go unreported as the victims are too terrified to go to the police.
This was the case for Jane, the product of a broken home who had been living in hostels and hanging out with local gangs since her early teens.
After her harrowing ordeal, she returned, sobbing, to her sparsely decorated room in a nearby hostel.
“A friend begged me to let her call an ambulance. But I just wanted to try to forget the whole thing – not least because I was terrified of those who had done it,” Jane says. “It took me a long, long time to get over it.”
The experience did help Jane to start putting her gang life behind her, though, and she is now training to be a mentor for young people. But she is still too terrified of repercussions from the gang to talk openly about her ordeal.
Her story evokes painful memories for Karah Leiana Isaacs, 22, from south London. Karah spent most of her teens with a gang, and although she never suffered from sexual violence directly herself, she knew all too well that it went on.
“There are girls out there that really bad things have happened to,” Karah says. “[There have been] cases where 10 gang members have all had sex with a girl at once, things like that. It happens.”
Karah says young girls are used as sex objects, adding that perhaps the saddest fact of all is that most can’t imagine life any other way.
“I’ve met many 15 or 16 year olds who have slept with 100 men,” she says. “They get exposed so early, that’s their way of dealing with things. It is sad to watch but it happens.
“Once they fall into a ‘link’ role – that’s one below the status of a girlfriend – they get passed around different men.
“They know if they refuse, they’d be cut off by the gang and would lose everything: their friends and main source of support. They are also scared of these men, what could happen to them. They don’t feel as if they have a choice.”
Scared and abused
D inah Senior, a serious youth violence consultant who has extensive experience of working with girls involved in gang life, says this kind of sexual abuse is rife.
“Almost every girl I’ve come into contact with who’s associated with gangs has suffered some kind of sexual manipulation or abuse,” she says.
“Girls will have a certain status within these gangs depending on who they are related to or sleeping with, how pretty they are, and what they are prepared to do.
“I’ve heard of young girls at parties giving oral sex to a line-up of men and then voluntarily coming back to do it the next week.
“It’s abuse, even though on the face of it they’re there voluntarily. They are driven by a desire to belong, by any means. It’s all done in return for safety.
“It’s a highly entrenched criminal environment and a girl who reports sexual abuse or rape to the authorities knows she could be genuinely putting her life at risk.
“The effect of all this violence is deep psychological trauma. These girls become like zombies, walking through life but not really feeling it.
“Safe houses don’t currently exist for these girls, so what choices do they really have when they know that attempting to escape puts themselves and their families at risk of serious violence or even death?”
Karah became involved with a gang when she was just 13, through people she knew in her local area. She says crime, such as drug dealing and theft, was the norm.
“The main motive was money,” she admits. “When you don’t have an income, it’s a way of putting the latest trainers on your feet. If I sold a little weed or whatever, I could make money.”
Trouble from the start
Karah comes from a troubled background. She grew up in south London, her parents were separated and her younger brother fell seriously ill and died when he was just nine.
“For me that was a major catalyst to going down a rocky path,” she says.
At 15, Karah began a serious relationship with a gang member.
“I was still living at home but my mum was cut up about my little brother’s death, so I just did what I wanted. I hardly ever went to school.”
But the relationship quickly became physically abusive as her “boyfriend” sought to control her.
“He’d headbutt me and strangle me,” she recalls. “I was terrified of him but I felt there was no way out and no one to turn to. I was wrapped up in the relationship and my mum was completely consumed by what had happened to my brother.”
With nowhere to turn, Karah put up with this abuse for three years. The relationship gave her a role within the gang community, meaning she didn’t get used as a sex object.
She was, however, required to provide other “favours”.
“Girls would hold the ‘food’, which is what we call the drugs, and sometimes weapons, as girls are less likely to be searched by the police,” she says. “If you’re pretty you can get away with a lot. For example, if there was a situation like a set-up for a robbery, we could help out.
“People are much more likely to open the door to a young girl, which is a good way of getting into a property. It’s something I did,” she admits, with shame. “Of course I don’t feel great about that looking back.”
She was arrested several times – for theft, possession of drugs and robbery, but was never charged.
When Karah was 18, her boyfriend was sent to prison for eight months for robbery and violence. It was the break she needed.
“That gave me enough time to find my feet and walk away,” she says.
“I’ve always been interested in singing, and I started to visit studios where I was surrounded by professional people. It made me realise that there was a different way of living.
“It was difficult for me, growing up, because it was the lifestyle that everyone around me lived. I didn’t want to be an outsider, so that meant being part of it.
“But eventually I realised that I didn’t want to be known for violence. You can’t live life like that. I wanted to succeed in other ways.”
Karah now works as a mentor with Foundation 4 Life, a London-based community group which works with troubled young people. The group’s director Gifford Sutherland says: “The work that we’re doing is about training and preparing girls to make positive life choices, build a solid foundation and gain meaningful employment.”
And Karah is indeed a brilliant role model. She recently signed a deal with an urban record label and has even released a single online. But most importantly, she no longer has any kind of contact with her former gang connections.
“I still live in south London,” she says. “I can’t change where I come from and I wouldn’t want to, but I’m ambitious for myself and want to pursue my singing.
“I realised that there was something else out there and I’m so much happier now. I feel in control of my own destiny.
“It makes me sad to think of young girls who don’t realise how good their lives could be. They need to realise that there is help out there for them – even if it doesn’t always feel like it.”
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