Jag Basra heads Spurgeons’ BeLeave programme, supporting girls and young women impacted by gang affiliation and child criminal exploitation. Jag is about to meet up in Cape Town with all the projects established under the international Comic Relief I Define Me programme. This will include initiatives from Colombia and South Africa, as well as other UK projects. We asked him to tell us more…
Don’t mess with the Peaky Blinders! That’s a polite version of a catchphrase from the TV series that glamourises a notorious criminal gang from Birmingham in the early 20th Century. Criminal gangs are not a new phenomenon for Britain’s Second City.
Yet they remain a very serious and worrying one, leading so many of our young people into a dark and potentially dangerous culture of drugs, crime and violence. This isn’t restricted to Birmingham and neither is the problem wholly focused on young males. Indeed, at a national level, there are more girls than boys (aged 10-15) associated with gangs*.
Today’s Birmingham is a significant hotspot for gang activity in this country. Birmingham Children’s Trust is currently aware of 44 organised crime groups and 11 street gangs in the city, involving around 70 child gang members but not including all those on the periphery and at risk of gang affiliation. Meanwhile, the National Crime Agency estimates there are 60 county line drugs operations running out of Birmingham that are exploiting young people, many of them girls.
With statistics showing that young males are more likely to be stopped and searched by police than females, girls and young women have increasingly been tasked by gangs with transporting guns and knives, as well as illegal substances.
For the last two years, Spurgeons’ BeLeave project has been working in Birmingham with girls aged 8-18, and their families, who are vulnerable to the anti-social behaviour and criminal activity pedalled by gangs (BeLeave urges girls and young women to ‘believe’ in themselves, and to ‘leave’ gangs). So far, its work has supported around 100 girls and young women, from 10 different ethnic groups.
With our emphasis placed firmly on early intervention, we work with Birmingham Police and Schools Panels to provide a support network giving local girls and young women opportunities to engage with positive, diversionary activities from the arts, sport and leisure. This builds their confidence and self-reliance, while removing reasons for getting involved in gangs.
Well-being sessions are also provided to help young girls develop social skills and build positive relationships with others, as well as the chance to improve their communication skills. These are opportunities which the girls wouldn’t otherwise come across, which help to instil a sense of self-worth.
Our focus is supporting girls and young women by using a whole-family approach to prevent Child Criminal Exploitation (CCE). This has won financial backing from the Rayne Foundation as well as Comic Relief, which is pioneering and funding BeLeave under its global I Define Me programme.
With CCE operating in situations, contexts and relationships where young people are rewarded (with food, accommodation, drugs, alcohol, affection, gifts, money and so on) for tasks performed, often of a criminal nature, my team will support those being targeted by gangs, or on the fringe of gang activity.
We do this through direct one-to-one support, theme-based peer groups, community awareness and family sessions that educate parents and carers to guard against the warning signs of CCE, such as poor school attendance, violent and risk-taking behaviour, going missing from home, drug/alcohol misuse, anti-social behaviour and criminal associations.
Our main driver is to get to vulnerable girls and young women before they get too close to gang life, before they find themselves in a threatening and controlling situation that can be so difficult to get out of. While there are several ways that can draw children and young people into CCE, if unsupported, there are only two ways out – prison or death.
BeLeave is about showing these girls how to recognise the risks and make the right choices, encouraging them to take control. While this has always been a challenge facing our youth, certainly going back to the Peaky Blinders era, young people today have so much to deal with. Social media on its own has multiplied the pressures traditionally thrown at teenagers. It is a massive factor in the issues BeLeave is dealing with day-to-day.
In sharing our knowledge and learning to develop multi-agency partnerships, we’re committed to learning more about the most effective ways to support these young women. In Cape Town, BeLeave is going to present its experience of trying to address the distressing problems associated with girls and young women who go missing. A third of the young women BeLeave has worked with have, at some point, gone missing from their family home.
As we enter the final phase of our three-year programme, we’re looking forward to coming back with yet more inspiration and ideas to strengthen protection and support for the positive development of girls and young women in Birmingham. So don’t mess with BeLeave!
* The Children’s Commissioner
Jag Basra – BeLeave