The Institute for Security Studies is a regional human security policy think tank with an exclusive focus on Africa. As a leading African human security research institution, the institute is guided by a broad approach to security reflective of the changing nature and origin of threats to human development.
The control of women’s bodies and women’s work is very lucrative, big, business for organised crime syndicates. Violently affirming dominance over women is often considered central to maintaining gang identity. The tale of a South African woman Nolubabalo "Babsie" Nobanda, who was caught trying to smuggle 1.5kg of cocaine into Thailand in her dreadlocks, however, presents an example of a growing number of women getting involved in organised crime as participants, rather than as victims. She was sentenced to 15 years in jail for her crime earlier this week.
She is only one of many. Female gang membership in the United States, for example, appears to be as high as 30%. Similarly Mexican women are increasingly stepping in to take over following a death or imprisonment of male gang members. In Cape Town, some male gangs also have women’s chapters, such as the Voora babes and Vato babes, aligned to the Voora and Vato-Slokos gangs respectively.
The view of female gang members as maladjusted tomboys trying to “pass as one of the guys”, or as drawn into gang life as pliable auxiliaries to their boyfriends, is being undermined by the growing incidence of women expressing complex constructions of femininity through their involvement in organised crime. They are not just couriers of drugs and guns, as they have been traditionally, but are also involved in the planning and execution of major operations at a more senior level.
The vast majority of crimes, however, still continue to be committed by men and as a result, many criminological theories - ostensibly of general application - account only for the behavioral traits of men. In fact, most theories of crime either ignore gender entirely or merely focus on why females fail to resemble males in their behaviour. Early studies attributed women’s lesser involvement in crime largely to their unique biology, stressing, for example, their lack of courage, their ‘piety, maternity, want of passion, sexual coldness, weakness, and undeveloped intelligence’. The past 50 years, however, have seen gender, rather than biological sex, come to the fore in criminology, as in most social sciences, in increasingly sophisticated ways. Feminist scholars increasingly draw attention, for example, to the role of sex-role stereotypes and gender differentials of social control.
As yet another woman, a Namibian national, was caught smuggling 1,3kg of cocaine into South Africa last week, this time in the handles of her suitcase, we need to address both why women, especially from developing countries, constitute an increasing proportion of criminals, and also why they are still in the minority. A gender conscious approach to studying organised crime cannot be limited to the mention of the impact of presumptively male criminals on women victims; nor can it pretend that women’s role in committing organised crime necessarily mirrors men’s. It should also recognise that these factors vary with modern socio-economic changes, especially women’s access to resources. Given that gender remains the single most powerful determinant of criminality (far more even than socio-economic or employment status), failure to adequately engage with it compromises the validity of our research and the utility of our proposed solutions.
Written by Anine Kriegler, Intern Transnational Threats and International Crime Division, edited by Charles Goredema, Programme Head Organised Crime and Money Laundering Programme ISS Cape Town