A gang is a non-transient and usually street-based collection of people who view themselves as a group, and who view violence and crime as a key part of group identity. They usually claim ownership over a territory and have identifiable markers of membership, such as dress codes or tattoos.

Gangs use violence to gain recognition, status and power over their rivals, including other gangs. People involved in gangs are vulnerable to violence, abuse and exploitation by members of their own or rival gangs.

Gangs can be confused with peer groups who gather in public places to socialise and may engage in antisocial behaviour. Unlike these groups, gangs are characterised by high levels of violence and criminality.

Vulnerability to exploitation

Gang membership is based on conformity to the group and participation in group activities. This can create strong feelings of loyalty and belonging among members and can act as a way of grooming and exploiting people into taking part in gang activities – including violence, drug dealing and other criminal activities.

Many gangs are hierarchical and younger members can feel pressured into participating in violent or criminal acts as a way of ‘proving’ their loyalty and to gain status within the group. They may also take part due to fear of other gang members or desire to conform to the culture of violence and criminality characterising gang life.

Members and associates of gangs may experience sexual violence or sexual exploitation from other gang members. Girls and young women are particularly vulnerable as they are often viewed as objects of status and power and may be pressured into sexual activity with male gang members. Sexual activity may also be used to exercise power and control over gang members or as repayment for drug debts. Rape and sexual assault may be used as a weapon against rival gangs.

Why people become and stay part of a gang

Many gang members take pride in their association with the gang and view it as an opportunity to gain belonging, power and status. They may not recognise their vulnerability to exploitation by other gang members or the exploitative nature of the gang activities they take part in.

People may not view the group they are involved in as a ‘gang’, instead viewing it as a friendship or social group. This could because of the belonging they feel to the group, the pride they take in their membership and participation, and the belief that they are taking part in group activities voluntarily. They may reject the term ‘gang’ and its connotations of violent and coercive behaviour.

People may find it difficult to leave a gang. Some gangs threaten violence if someone suggests that they would like to leave. Fear of violence can create cycles of coercion where the strength of the group threat keeps members engaged in gang activity.