Ebinehita Iyere: Girls, Young Women and Their Unheard and Unhealed Trauma
The Youth Violence Commission’s final report lays bare how society has failed to address the root causes of serious violence that devastates the lives of so many young people and communities. Drawing on the views and experiences of professionals from across the sector, this report provides an important insight into what is happening on the ground, both to understand the impact of youth violence, and to reduce levels of violence in the future.
The final report has, however, like many reports, neglected to provide sufficient attention to young women. It has failed, for example, to look at how young women respond to traumatic experiences — how their loyalty, rules and roles within their communities are central aspects of youth violence, which we must strive to better understand. There is extensive research on, and frontline work for, young women who are subjected to child sexual exploitation (CSE). However, young women who do not fall into the ‘CSE’ bracket are often missed and lost in the system, due in large part to the stereotypes with which they are labelled. This in turn increases the likelihood of these young women having negative experiences and contact with various adults across many of our institutions, including education, justice, health and social care.
I started my career working predominantly with young males in the Youth Justice System and across various communities in London. Every time an incident occurred, such as an arrest, a fight or a stabbing, it would be a young female that would call me to explain who they were and also what had happened; this pattern repeated itself many times. These girls were aged as young as 11, and as old as 27, but most of them were between 13 and18 years of age. They also tended to be young black girls, as the sad reality is that black boys are disproportionately affected by serious violence in the areas where I work in London.
There are so many young women who are unhealed and unheard due to the traumatic impact of youth violence, who uphold contextual and cultural rules such as ‘no snitching’ and roles such as ‘keepers’ of their environment. Most have had a lack of consistent positive attachment figures and therefore have some of the highest social and emotional needs. The lack of support for these young women leaves many likely to experience negative contact within the education, justice, health and social care systems; they are managed and labelled as a problem, while the problems they have experienced are disregarded or overlooked.
Although some research has been conducted on the role(s) women play in gangs, insufficient attention has been given to the supportive roles many young women play that have nothing to do with gangs, such as their ‘brother’s keeper’ – a role that can bring with it traumatic experiences directly or vicariously from violence, loss, bereavement and family breakdown. These girls have always had to play protective roles, directly or indirectly, sometimes in positive ways, sometimes negative. Their role as ‘protector’ is expected due to certain unwritten rules, including those stemming from the roles they have seen older women play: to nurture the males around them; to ensure that boys and young men are coping and safe.
Instead of being given the time and space to grieve, girls often have to wear a suit of armour – to immediately adopt the role of protector, caring for the boys and young men around them who have been directly involved in serious violence. Girls put out the flowers, girls organise the funerals or memorial services, girls are on the phone at night to boys who can’t sleep and are crying because they’re so traumatised and don’t feel they can speak to other males.
In short, girls are spending more time and energy mobilising for others than they are healing themselves. This is why I founded Milk and Honey in 2016, an organisation for young women who are either involved in, at-risk of being involved in, or who have already witnessed, traumatic events. We offer young women a therapeutic safe space where they can express their trauma using creative, expressive arts and where they can flourish and take ownership of their healing, empowerment and resilience (HER) through one-to-one sessions and group projects. My work with young people through Milk and Honey has shown me the lack of child and adolescent mental health and therapeutic services for all children and young people, but particularly for those from BME communities who have experienced loss, bereavement and grief in the communities most affected by violence.
It is easy to see why there has been a focus on the male experience of violence, but it leaves a serious blind spot. Apart from brief soundbites provided by distraught mothers or sisters on television in the aftermath of a murder, we rarely hear about the ways in which youth violence hurts young women and girls. Male faces and voices typically feature at the centre of debates, rendering other perspectives secondary. If we as a society are serious about understanding and curing the epidemic of knife crime and violence, we ought to be trying to capture a much more diverse range of experiences and personal insights – especially if those experiences and insights are those of the girls and women who have, for decades, had to pick up the pieces when a community experiences the tragic loss of a young life.
The lack of resource dedicated to, and research on, young girls impacted by the trauma of youth violence, as well as black girls who experience disproportionately negative contact across many of our societal institutions, is a major failing that must be addressed. That is why I am recommending extensive research is conducted in two areas: 1) the traumatic impact youth violence has on young girls; and 2) specific research on black girls and their negative experiences across many societal institutions, including education, social care, health and the criminal justice system. We cannot continue to ignore and neglect the trauma that devastates the lives of so many girls and young women in the UK – it is something that we must address as a matter of urgency.
Ebinehita Iyere is the Founder of Milk and Honey, a female-led safe space that empowers young women and helps them to heal from their experiences