July, 2020
Detectives Anisha Parhar and Sandy Avelar

Detectives Anisha Parhar and Sandy Avelar: Saving Our Girls from Gangs

By Surbhi Gogia

Eboney grew up in Vancouver with a normal and happy childhood enjoying family outings, birthday celebrations and playing with neighbourhood friends. When she was old enough she thought dating a co-worker from the club where she worked, would be as normal as any other relationship in her life. But she got off path from a commoner’s lifestyle, when her ex-boyfriend started selling drugs.

At the beginning, the glamour and the expensive lifestyle he gave her, attracted Eboney to stay in a relationship with a gang member willingly. After all, she was not involved directly in any gang activity yet enjoying the money.  “I don’t want to glamorize it, but I got to reap all the benefits — vacations, staying in five-star hotels, nice clothes, and the shoes and the bags, the cars, all that stuff. That was my life.”

But as they say, nothing comes free in this world. Eboney paid a huge price for staying in a relationship with a gang member — emotional abuse and ultimately spending eight months in prison when she was caught by US cops with her ex-boyfriend who was trading drugs along the border. Although Eboney was not part of any trading and just accompanying him, the federal court judge sentenced her, quoting, “I would love to let you go home but I cannot have girls thinking that they can date men like this, be involved in this lifestyle, and get away with it.”

Perhaps the judge’s message stayed with Eboney. Once out of the prison, she decided to put her life back on track by pursuing bodybuilding and warning other young girls from getting attracted to the glamour and expensive lifestyle which comes when you get associated with a gang member. Eboney is on a mission to educate young girls about the dangers of staying in such relations. Thanks to two Vancouver Police Department’s detectives Anisha Parhar and Sandy Avelar, who have given Eboney, the correct platform to share her story.

Detectives Parhar and Avelar have launched one-of-its-kind gang awareness initiative that aims to protect girls from getting involved with gang members by giving presentations in schools and help those who are already part of any gang lifestyle by helping them connect to the right resources, to exit from any such relation.

Named as Her Time, this initiative is perhaps a very first gang awareness program for girls in North America. Det. Parhar has worked in covert intelligence with the provincial gang unit before joining VPD. It was during her work, she got a chance to listen to these girls talking to their boyfriends and girlfriends. “You’re listening to these guys and girls when they think no one is listening and you really see the raw and human side of these people. I heard a lot of abuse and a lot of instances where the girlfriends, or the wives were calling their friends about what the gangster boyfriend is doing and how they really feel.”

She wanted to do something about it. She then liaised with her fellow, Det. Avelar, who too has been working with VPD for over 20 years and has a passion to support youth, to start this initiative. It is a completely volunteered independent program run by these two dedicated officers outside their regular jobs. “We go to schools and do presentations during our off days,” explains Det. Avelar. The decision to run it is an independent program and not as of part of VPD comes from the founders’ inner drive to stay with the program forever. “We have the complete support of VPD. But we run it independently. There are no boundaries to gangs and it gives us more freedom to spread awareness across Lower Mainland,” says Det. Avelar.

The program is only one year old but it has gained support and appreciation across the province and even in few cities of US. The reason behind its fast-growing popularity is the need for such a program. “It’s been a long time since any such program was due,” says Det. Parhar.

In the face of overwhelming violence affecting the young men trapped in the world of gang conflict, there are many programs that talk about saving young men from gangs. But the issue of young women who too are stranded in this unsafe, unstable environment has largely been ignored and there are not many programs like Her Time that educate young women about the dangers of the gang lifestyle.

Dr. Keiron McConnell, a criminology professor at KPU, who has decades of frontline and academic experience in dealing with gang-related issues, in one of his studies on Gangster girlfriends in BC, which he co-authored with two others, also mentions there is no substantial research that has focused exclusively on women and how people think that gangster girlfriends or women in relation with gangsters is just a trivial issue. “There is minimal research. There is less about women,” he says.

Det. Parhar points out the main reason women have been ignored is due to their stereotyping as girlfriends. Many people trivialize the issue by saying, “Oh they are just girlfriends.” But women and their involvement with gangs is much more complex. There are some women who are directly involved in gangs and take leadership roles, there are some who become girlfriends of the gang members by choice and there are some whose brother, son or boyfriend becomes a gang member and they have no option to exit this relation.

There is no substantial data or research that indicates how many women or at what level they are involved but there are only few who are directly involved and take any leadership role. Dr. McConnell says, “I can think of only one woman Madison Fine who took on any leadership role in a gang and she was still the GF of the Bacon boy.” Most of the time women are not involved in the gang but in the gang lifestyle. Det. Parhar observes that there are some who get involved at deeper levels. “They either traffic the drugs or carry firearms or know too much. Or they are being used sexually.”

Dangers of a gang lifestyle

There are dangers associated with gang lifestyles no matter what level you are involved. Even Dr. McConnell emphasizes in his study that it is of “foremost importance” to save women from such situations since the relationships with gang members are “extremely dangerous”.

Physical violence, aggression and control issues from the gangster boyfriend are some dangers that all women face when they get involved with a gang member. “When there is a shooting, there is always a girlfriend sitting right beside the target which poses threat to her life too,” Sandy says.

Dr. McConnell’s study also points out, “When young women are pulled over or caught associating with a known gang member in BC they are marked in the police database, PRIME, as a gang associate. They are then potentially targeted by the police and subjected to increased negative attention by law enforcement agencies. Being tagged as gang associated can prevent young women from getting any job that requires police records check.”

Most of the time girls enter into a relationship with a gang member due to naivety and then find it difficult to exit once they start feeling the pressure of an abusive relationship. They are either too shy or scared to share their story and experience. It is at this point role of a program like Her Time becomes important.

“In our program, we tell them we do care about you girls, you are not just one of his prized trophies and do not think it is hard to exit. There are resources available. Many girls are shy to talk to the police. We tell them they can talk to a school counsellor, teacher, older person in the family, crime stoppers and make an anonymous call. And if you want to talk to police please do,” says Det. Avelar.

The lure of money

Along with educating girls about the right resources and dangers of being into a gang lifestyle, the program also warns young girls who are at risk of getting involved into a gang lifestyle either by choice or unknowingly. “Most of the time it’s the lure of money that attracts them to be in a relationship with a gang member. Young school aged girls and women are the target. When someone approaches you and wants to buy you new branded bag, a pair of shoes, phone — you need to ask why?” says Det. Parhar. “Everyone loves extra money but you need to be aware from where the money is coming. Be aware girls you are almost selling your soul to the devil.”

Apart from the lure of the money, she points some girls get involved in gangs by force. “We always ask girls to be careful during house parties. These parties and clubs are the most common places to catch young girls. It could start with a simple incident like someone approaching you to offers some drink. That drink might have drugs in it. Once you have that drink, that person wants something in return. Then the girls get trapped and start getting exploited,” explains Det. Parhar. “Trust your intuition. If it doesn’t feel right, it is not right.”

During the program, young school girls are asked to note these red flags to save them from getting into any such relation willingly or unwillingly. But both, Det. Parhar and Det. Avelar note that due to technology and a culture that attracts kids towards stuff, it becomes important for parents too, to keep watch on their kids’ behaviour.

South Asian girls into gang lifestyle

There has been lot of media attention over the past few years about involvement of South Asian males in gangs and lifestyle. Det. Parhar notes that this automatically brings our attention to South Asian girls who are in any relation with these gang members. “We don’t have any statistics that tell us how many South Asian women are involved in gang lifestyle but it is an important issue that cannot be ignored.”

“There was a time when drugs was a taboo subject amongst South Asian women. But now they are not only involved with male gang members but also using drugs. So there is a problem,” she says.

If on one hand there is this visible population of South Asian women who are at risk of getting affected by gangs. There is also an invisible population of women that suffers. “I am more worried about the mothers and sisters who lead normal lives but live in the homes with these guys who are their sons and brothers. We need to target these people for their protection,” says Dr. McConnell.

Dets. Parhar and Avelar through their program, want to save such women and girls from a risky lifestyle which in the beginning looks attractive but poses dangers later. Eboney’s story is a lesson for many young girls who are lucky now to have a program that can warn them in advance, a program that could have even saved Eboney if it ever existed before.

Red Flags for parents

Signs that may warn parents about their girls involvement with a gang member

  1. If your daughter’s grades are falling suddenly
  2. She has unexplained cash
  3. She is making new friends much older than her age
  4. She has access to new devices, brands, phones without your knowledge

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