Drug gangs are recruiting and sexually exploiting more girls and women, warn charities

Tanya Mercer spoke to women whose lives have been destroyed by gangs - one of them is a grieving mother

Growing numbers of girls and women are being recruited into county drug gangs - putting them at risk of violence at the hands of criminals, survivors and campaigners have warned.

It is estimated that up to a third of young people in gangs are girls - equating to tens of thousands of people across the country.

In the first part of a special investigation series, ITV News Anglia has been exploring the evolving world of county lines drugs gangs - and spoke to campaigners who warn that the exploitation of young women is "a volcano that's going to explode".

In three exclusive reports, speaking to those whose lives have been blighted by the culture, the survivors picking up the pieces, and examining potential solutions to the problem.

Among those left behind is a mother - whose identity we are protecting - is mourning her daughter, who died aged 37 after her home and life was taken over by criminals.

Her daughter was in an abusive relationship with an addict and became hooked on heroin. She tried to fight her daughter’s decline, but was helpless against the control of gangs.

She told ITV News Anglia: “We could get her clean, but the dealers are not going to want to let her go because she's an earner and her property can be used as an earner.

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"She knew it. She just wasn't strong enough. She just lived for the fairytale life and it never came."

The mother said gangs turned her "kind, gentle" daughter into a shadow of her former self.

“To wake up every day not knowing if your child is going to be alive is one of the hardest things a mum has to do. I miss her every day,” she said.

Girls and woman are often recruited as they look less suspicious to police and can be made to fulfil several roles, from administrator and organiser to girlfriend or sexual partner.

But the scale of the problem is unknown because statistics do not recognise the gender make-up of gangs and many gang prevention services are aimed at boys, the Commission on Young Lives, a research body, said.

There were more than 16,000 cases of child sexual exploitation in England in 2021-22, government stats show. More than 70% of these cases are gang-related.

And these numbers are "likely to be just the tip of the iceberg", the Commission on Young Lives said.

Drug gangs are targeting more women and girls. Credit: ITV Anglia

Chloe - not her real name - was just 13 when she started hanging out with a group of men, and described to ITV News Anglia how she fell into gang life.

She said: “I thought they were cool because they smoked, did drugs, drank and they drove.

“They gave me drink and stuff. We drove out of Ipswich. I liked it. But it got out of hand, like badly, to the point I couldn't control it."

Chloe ended up being abused and exploited. She would go missing for days at a time.

Now 16, she said: “I have no doubt if I hadn’t got out, I’d be doing much worse things with worse people. Or even be dead.”

Girls and women are being recruited into drug gangs. Credit: ITV Anglia

Another woman Gennine fell into a violent relationship with an addict several years ago, and started using Class A drugs.

As a vulnerable single mum, she became sexually exploited by gangs, and was running drugs, putting herself in danger.

“I just nosedived into class drugs, prostitution, criminality,” she said.

“It's easier to recruit women because a woman can carry the drugs undetected in her body, she can carry weapons and is less likely to get stopped and searched.

"They get women out to do sex work. Women get beaten, forced to go and get their money and drugs.”

Gennine was once violently attacked during a drug deal. But, unable to extract herself from the addiction or the control of the gangs, dealers took over her home and used it as a drug den.

“I felt like I had no choice”, she says. “When you have no money and no means to buy the drugs that you want, then you do whatever. And if they want to sell drugs from your property, you do it.”

Gennine said: “At the moment, we hear about young men killing young men. I fear that soon you'll see the exact same thing with women.

"Drugs don't care if you’re a boy or a girl. Man or a woman, what age you are.

"None of it matters. Drugs don't discriminate. And unfortunately, in that drug world, people just don't care. They just don't care.”

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