Photographer : Irene
Last year, three girls beat 15-year-old Tess Stirling in a sickening, premeditated attack on the Gold Coast. Then a month later, a group of Ipswich State High School girls viciously bashed another young woman. In both incidents there were bystanders, watching and applauding, filming with mobile phones, then uploading them to YouTube. Also last year, there was a prearranged fight in Sydney because one girl feared being called a ‘chicken’. In NSW alone, violence among young girls has grown almost four times the rate of its rise among young boys, and has doubled over the past 10 years, according to the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics.
Who are the perpetrators?
Commonly, violent girls come from dysfunctional family backgrounds, low socio-economic environments, have experienced physical or emotional abuse, and have low self-esteem, according to Eddie Gallagher, a Melbourne psychologist who specialises in family violence. However, not all aggressive and violent girls fit the stereotypical profile. Many are so-called ‘alpha girls’—the jockettes, the popular and pretty ones with an inflated sense of entitlement. And the age of the perpetrators can be as young as 10 years old. In 1995, for every 100,000 10-to-24year-old Australian females, 1093 were involved in assault. A decade later and it had nearly doubled to 2094.
Where does it happen? And who are the victims?
Violence in the home is one of the most common forms of assault by young females, with mothers the main victims according to a survey conducted by Gallagher of 260 families affected by domestic violence. From 2003 to 2007, federal police statistics show such attacks leapt by 30 per cent, compared with a 19 per cent jump in assaults by adolescent boys over the same period.
Girl-on-girl attacks in school grounds, at parties and other public spaces, and women arrested over physical assaults have also risen. Indeed, Australian Institute of Criminology statistics show that since 2003 the proportion of adult female detainees whose most serious offence was a violent one has increased from 16 per cent to 20 per cent.
What are the reasons?
The Role of Technology
The misuse of technology is evident: a global research encompassing a range of national and international studies and data, by Professor Kerry Carrington (from Queensland University of Technology's School Justice), found that cyber bullying was a contributor to rising rates of adolescent girls' violence.
Girls are engaging in cyberspace conflicts—through Facebook, MySpace, email, forums, MSN Messenger, and mobile phones—by arguing, gossiping, creating fake profiles of others, and posting degrading content . This has lead to physical violence on the streets or in school playgrounds. The research also concluded that technology contributed to the most significant increases in violence in the past decade.
A Societal Shift
Violence in woman has also been reinforced by more physically aggressive female role models on television, in music videos, and film. An example from Harry Potter by journalist Paoloa Totaro, shows how female aggression has become more acceptable and glorified by pop culture:
''When Hermione punched Malfoy in the Harry Potter movie, the audience cheered...every desensitisation increases the risk of aggressive behaviour. Of course, every movie that succeeds with a violent female character usually leads to another one being made and the violence needs to ratcheted up to elicit the same thrill or response from audiences."
Family violence specialist Eddie Gallagher similarly explains that more girls “now have an attitude to violence that is like boys, in that they are proud of their fighting prowess; it is about pride and excitement rather than anger”. This could explain why there is a growing acceptance of videos of girls bashing other girls on the internet.
What is being done?
Programs addressing physical aggression in girls are in their infancy. According to Professor Carrington, from Queensland University of Technology’s School of Justice, a long-standing reluctance to accept increasing violence among girls meant there were few specific initiatives to address it. She believes that interventions should include greater regulation of cyberspace and its usage.
It has taken serious incidents for some level of action to be taken. For example, in early 2009 teaching staff at one Gippsland secondary school (Victoria) were so overwhelmed by the behaviour of one group of year 9 girls they appealed for help. The result is a pilot program to help the girls understand the consequences of their actions. ''Specifically, bullying and high levels of anger and aggressive behaviour in 14-to-15-year-old girls had been noticed,'' said program co-ordinator Liz Craig. ''A gap was identified in reaching at-risk young women, as was an opportunity to improve self-esteem, self-care and practical strategies to promote mental health and well-being.''
What further action can be taken?
The clichéd opinion—that girls are not capable of violence—has been left unchallenged for too long, worsening the problem. Parents and authorities have to understand that things have changed: they cannot assume that females are just naturally gentler. A fixed feminine nature is not true and it can change and vary greatly. Any approaches to this complex social issue must be targeted with evidence-based initiatives.
Professor Paul Mazerolle, Program Leader in Violence Research and Prevention at Griffith University, suggests that programs must detect early signs before conflicts between girls escalate. He also suggests effective responses must monitor trends and the changing nature of female violence; however, he concedes that further research is required.
How do I know this?
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Egan C, 'Girls at war: the new face of violence', www.theage.com.au/national/girls-at-war-the-new-face-of-violence-20090815-elsm.html
2009 viewed 27 January 2010
Mazerolle P, ‘Youth Violence in Australia: Characteristics and Consequences’, http://www.rch.org.au/emplibrary/cah/1_PM.pdf
2007 viewed 12 March 2010
Miles J, ‘Teenage girls as aggressive as boys, researchers find’, http://www.news.com.au/couriermail/story/0,23739,26578316-3102,00.html
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O' Brien S, 'Young women not holding back on violence', www.brisbanetimes.com.au/queensland/young-women-not-holding-back-on-violence-20100111-m2hn.html
2010 viewed 24 February 2010
Totaro P, ‘Mean girls – the rise of the violent females’, http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/mean-girls--the-rise-of-the-violent-femmes/2006/04/07/1143916722751.html?page=fullpage#contentSwap1
2006 viewed 26 February 2010
Wenham M, 'Girl violence on the rise', www.news.com.au/couriermail/story/0,27574,26112509-3102,00.html
2009 viewed 27 January 2010
Wilson R, ‘Girls’ violence on the rise’, www.marketingcomm.qut.edu.au/cmpublications/
2009 viewed 24 February 2010