Gender-sensitive approaches to youth offending

Published: 12 Jun 2015

Author: Carlene Firmin
Gender-sensitive approaches to youth offending

Carlene Firmin is Head of MsUnderstood Partnership, a programme seeking to improve UK responses to abuse in young people’s relationships. She was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to investigate gender-sensitive responses to youth offending in New Zealand, Australia and Brazil.

“People want to be seen as like the alpha male, like the rude boy, the bad boy. They’ll be scared of him, they want to be the biggest, the best.” – Young male in the Youth Justice system

Research tells us that young people's experiences of offending are informed by gender stereotypes: boys fight to prove themselves as men, and girls act aggressively so as not to appear vulnerable to abuse. Despite this, the UK youth justice system response to youth offending is largely gender-neutral. Carlene travelled to find out how other parts of the world are addressing this gap.

Rio in Brazil provided some of the most striking examples of safety being created even in the most violent of environments. Carlene visited an anti-violence project for young people based in the middle of a favela, and witnessed public awareness-raising campaigns led by men to challenge harmful attitudes towards women and girls.

In Australia Carlene visited projects which had developed bystander initiatives to shift environments in which harmful attitudes persisted; met with activists who had created materials to address the impact of pornography on young people; and learnt about the whole-school approaches to gender equity being developed in Melbourne schools.

She identified five principles that need to be realised to take a gender-sensitive responses to young people in general, and those affected by violence and abuse more specifically.

These include creating a safe environment for young people to change their behaviours; engaging communities (including businesses, state departments, peers, schools and wider neighbourhoods) to enable bystander intervention; and developing a response that acknowledges the cultural landscapes that are informing young people's identity and sense of belonging.

“The importance that young people placed of knowing the histories of the countries they were in, and what this meant for their sense of belonging and engagement in making a difference, was staggering to me. It made me reflect on how little we discuss issues such as colonisation with young people in the UK, and how such debates may equip young people with a language to critique and engage with the policy and services that affect their lives,” said Carlene.

“Given the disproportionate number of black and minority ethnic young people held in custody in England and Wales, this lesson seems the most important to me.”

Carlene intends to share her findings with the Youth Justice Board and Home Office as well as youth leadership and youth justice organisations.

Read the full report