Gaynor Wingham looks at recent research in
Scotland that offers fresh insight into the violent behaviour of
some teenage girls.
Girls’ violence is frequently depicted in the
media as a new and growing phenomenon. Girls who are violent are
“unfeminine” or “unnatural”. A study by the University of Glasgow
explores violent behaviour in girls and tries to understand its
meaning and function in girls’ lives. The study challenges some of
the traditional thinking about violence, which has been derived
primarily from research on boys and young men. Among the authors’
motives for carrying out the research project was that no
systematic study had previously been conducted on girls and
The research focused on girls aged from 13 to
16 in a range of localities across Scotland, mixing inner-city,
town and rural areas. It used self-report questionnaires, small
group discussions and individual interviews.
It found that 98.5 per cent of the girls had
witnessed first-hand some form of physical violence, usually a
fight, and 70 per cent had witnessed five or more such incidents.
Nearly two-thirds knew someone who had been physically hurt or
injured by violence, with 41 per cent experiencing violence
It also found that 10 per cent of the girls
described themselves as being violent and 10 per cent reported
having committed seven or more types of physically violent acts,
such as punching, kicking or hitting with an object. It was this
group who were more likely to:
– Self-report other forms of delinquent
– Demonstrate high tolerance towards physical
violence in a range of social contexts.
– Occupy relatively autonomous social
– Mistrust adults.
– Have lower educational aspirations.
What relevance could this research have to
workers in the field, people who are working day to day with young
It certainly seems to indicate that as a
starting point it is important to acknowledge young women’s
potential for violence and its impact. It is not just a male issue,
it is part of growing up as a girl as well.
The research showed that girls drew clear
distinctions between interpersonal physical violence and sexual
assault and other behaviour, which fell short of physical contact.
However, they saw verbally abusive behaviour as more hurtful and
damaging than physical violence.
Girls frequently described themselves as
“growing out” of using physical violence and to a lesser extent
verbal abuse. This could be seen as positive, but as girls’
violence is viewed as so “unnatural”, the “violent period” may
still result in extreme action against them. It may be important to
highlight this finding when considering what action to recommend
following a violent episode.
Girls commonly described their friendships
with other girls as the most important thing in their lives.
However, as well as being sources of comfort, friendships are also
the site of conflict. Falling out with friends is seen as
devastating for many girls and this can involve various forms of
intimidation and violence. It may be important to explore in direct
work with girls the nature and effect of their friendships and how
these evolve and break down.
The study certainly indicates that violence,
either experienced or witnessed, is part of many girls’ lives. As
it is an original study it has no comparative data with previous
studies, so it is not possible to conclude whether this is a
growing or changing phenomenon, but it does give some insight to
what violence means to many girls today.
– Michele Burman and Kay Tisdall, A View
From the Girls: Exploring Violence and Violent Behaviour,
University of Glasgow. More details at website www.regard.ac.uk or phone 0117
Gaynor Wingham is director of the
Professional Independents Consultancy.