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‘being strong, bringing home money, being a protector, having power, being respected, being a womaniser, a chauvinist, macho, brash will earn you respect’
Latin America‘s gang culture thrives mostly in the Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA), comprising of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. It is difficult to quantify exactly how many people belong to gangs in Central America, but recent estimates show it could be between 100,000 and 500,000 members.
Gangs are a product of their environment, thriving on the culture of violence and high levels of poverty that come hand in hand with rapid urbanisation, flawed democratic development, state-led repression and destructive civil war. The biggest and most renowned gangs are the rivals La Mara Salvatrucha, known by its initials MS-13 and La Mara Dieciocho, known as M-18.
The presence of gangs in the countries does not directly correlate to the levels of violence and death rates in the NTCA. But they do employ violence in their practices to initiate new members, intimidate non-members, settle scores or punish.
MACHISMO CULTURE IN GANGS
Adam Baird, a researcher focusing on youth gangs in Latin America, claims that ‘although masculinities alone cannot account for gang membership, it is clear that processes of male socialisation are central to understanding why gangs persist’. He explains that in an environment which struggles economically and aspires for social improvement, ‘being strong, bringing home money, being a protector, having power, being respected, being a womaniser, a chauvinist, macho, brash will earn you respect’. And all these characteristics are inherent in gang culture. Being a gang member is a refuge from poverty. It is a way of avoiding emasculation, preserving dignity and raising social status.
The protective, macho exterior which gang members adorn themselves with often necessitates violence when this exterior is threatened, meaning gang members often carry around weapons for intimidation. Baird explains that ideas of respect are often conflated with fear. So when a gang member wields a knife or gun, a symbol of masculine capital, the fear that the other members show is interpreted as respect, helping to generate the self-worth of the weapon holder, develop a macho identity and reduce feelings of low self-esteem.
In essence, machismo and gang violence have a mutually reinforcing relationship, as gangs reproduce and entrench local machismo and patriarchy as a whole. To rise up in the ranks and earn respect, you must eschew any traces of femininity or non-hegemonic masculinity, and adorn yourself with a tough exterior.
VIOLENCE, RAPE AND SEXUAL ASSAULT IN GANG RELATIONSHIPS
This sense of entitlement to sexual pleasure can often lead to rape and sexual assault if the girlfriend of a gang member does not want sex. One victim of gang rape in a Medellin-based gang in Colombia writes:
‘The gang did a lot of damage to me. I met this guy in my neighbourhood, a well-known guy [infamous for being a gang member]. Supposedly it was love, a beautiful love, an eternal love, but him and his friends raped me’.
She goes on to describe that her clothes were also taken away from her as punishment for resisting, so that she had to walk home naked through the streets.
Such incidents are not isolated. Numerous testimonies point to the prevalence of gang rape of female members, with up to 30 men involved in one reported case in Brazil, as well as forced sexual relations with gang leaders as a prelude to teenage girls’ recruitment. ‘It‘s unbelievable how violent they can get…how they treat their wives and mothers. They don‘t need to carry a weapon to behave as brutally as they do’, said a former B-18 female gang member. Another victim explains, ‘The whole reason I was in danger was because I was a woman. A man feels like he is entitled to physical and emotional power over you’.
The reality of dating a gang member, then, is far different from the idealised image, and a girlfriend of a gang member never truly gains status. Jody Miller, through researching the dynamics of females within gangs, asserts that experiences of victimisation may increase chances of further assault in future.
She writes that ‘sexual victimisation leads to perceptions of sexual availability or can present victims as weak, and therefore easy targets’. This paints a bleak picture of the role of females within gangs, where the cycle of sexual assault is endless and their levels of dignity and respect is set on a downward spiral against their will.
This article is extracted from the Research paper titled 'Silent Voices: violence against the female body as a consequence of machismo' by Steffica Warwick in the Safety Report by SAFIGI Outreach Foundation 'Safety First for Girls'.
The Safety Report by SAFIGI is a two-fold Open research on 'Core Issues Affecting Safety of Girls in the Developing World.' The first part of the Safety Report is a Research Paper. The second part is a detailed Data Analysis.
The Safety Report Research paper is titled: 'Core Issues Affecting Safety of Girls in the Developing World.' The paper starts with an abstract before focusing on subjects in the key regions of Africa, Asia, and the Americas. A total of 7 Research papers make up the safety Report (sans the introduction and conclusion), including:
The Safety Report Data Analysis is titled: 'Core Issues Affecting Safety of Girls. Results and Outcomes based on Zambia, Egypt, USA, Tanzania, South Sudan, and Namibia.'
SAFIGI Outreach Foundation Ltd, a volunteer-based and youth led NGO registered in Zambia, implemented the Safety Report in order to understand the multifaceted concept of safety and how it applies to the female gender in diverse settings. And therefore, further prove safety is intrinsic, and that vices in society stem from an intimate level of the human being before its manifestation. This way, when we create safety solutions, whether it be in a developing nation, conflict zone, refugee camp, or patriarchal society, the problem is resolved from a deeply rooted cause. Such that, we treat the disease itself and not mere symptoms.
This study is as a result of collaborative effort pursued in the spirit of volunteerism via UN Online Volunteers.