Gangs and armed groups may rank below militaries and law enforcement agencies in the possession of firearms, but "they have consistently shown a willingness to use guns and use them for violence," says Dr. Jennifer Hazen, a senior researcher with the authoritative Small Arms Survey.
The survey is conducted as an independent research project at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva.
Gangs are in possession of between 1.2 and 1.4 million firearms. While girls do not figure prominently in the intensive use of small arms and light weapons (SALW), many are active supporters and participants in gangs. It is estimated that within Britain and the U.S., females represent between 25 and 50 percent of all gang members.
Women are often cast as victims of violence but the infrequent use of firearms by women does not mean they abstain from violence, experts say. "We don't know how much they are carrying," Jasna Lazarevic, an associate researcher specialising on girls in gangs for the Small Arms Survey, told IPS.
"Since so much of what ends up in criminal hands and gangs starts out as legal, we need to better understand this trade. Governments are still very reluctant to share information on trade in small arms," said Eric Berman, the managing director of the Smalls Arms Survey.
Another round of deliberations on mechanisms to combat the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons began here in New York on Monday, with the launching of the Fourth Biennial Meeting of States (BMS4) on SALW, which will end Friday. The U.N. Programme of Action, a document adopted in 2001 that outlines non-binding commitments made by countries, will serve as the guide.
BMS4 will also act as a preparation base for subsequent meetings on the SALW trade. Next month, the Arms Trade Treaty Preparatory Committee will begin discussions on the negotiation for a treaty governing conventional arms. The Review Conference in 2012 will be the formal meeting for these deliberations.
Ambassador Pablo Macedo, the chair of BMS4, says the U.N. Programme of Action addresses the disproportionate consequences small arms have on women and children.
"We have a special responsibility to protect those vulnerable groups," he told IPS. "The trafficking of arms have terrible consequences socially, they disrupt social order, development, encourage transnational crime so all these phenomenon are linked. Women and children are very much affected by them, perhaps more so than others."
However, among the outstanding concerns outlined by Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon regarding the U.N. Programme of Action, he cited the lack of gender-specific responses to address the impact small arms have on women, children and the elderly.
High priority issues to be tackled at the meeting are facilitating international cooperation in implementing the action plan, ensuring that the weapons can be traced from origin to user, and implementing mechanisms to stem the illicit cross-border trade. Aside from these issue areas, Macedo told IPS that the meeting would also address the concerns affecting women and other groups in their debates.
The increase in the number of women and girls in prisons around the world points to the lack of programmes tailored to the needs of women within gangs. "The research is already weak, it is difficult to make gender-targeted programming specific for women because we don't have much knowledge," Lazarevic told IPS.
Whether taking on the role of fighter, spy or conveyor of weapons and messages, girls within mixed gangs have marginal status in comparison to men. This second-class designation is reinforced when girls engage in horizontal violence because it supports the status quo, the study revealed. Girl-on-girl violence is a tactic used to consolidate their place and commitment to the gang.
Many of the intervention programmes aimed at secondary prevention are designed for boys while girls, because of their presumed peripheral role within the gang, are sometimes excluded from the programmes. Preventive measures directed at girls at risk, from the ages of nine to 15, are also scarce, the survey reports.
In Haiti, the dismantling of gangs and incarceration of their leaders has placed women at risk because they hold valuable information that can be sought by rival gangs or used by the police.
Though women have been reported to leave gang life earlier than men for reasons that may involve pregnancy and more employment opportunities in the service sector than men, there are not as many gender-sensitive projects fit to help them leave and build a life outside of the gang, said Lazarevic.