01/11/2011 13:15 GMT | Updated 01/01/2012 05:12 GMT

Girls Being Raped As 'Gang Weapons', Theresa May Warns

Girls are being used as weapons in disputes between rival gangs, Home Secretary Theresa May has said.

Mrs May said girls and young women were often the girlfriends of gang members and were being raped by members of rival gangs as part of disputes.

She pledged at least £1.2 million over the next three years to improve services for young victims of sexual violence in major urban areas.

Mrs May admitted that girls could also be involved in gang violence themselves, but added: "More often they would be the victims. They would be the partners of gang members. They would find themselves being abused and sometimes being used as weapons - raping a rival gang leader's girlfriend to get back at that gang."

She said it was a serious issue which the Government needed to "shine a light on".

Mrs May also announced plans for former gang members who are in danger or who want to get away from their old lifestyle to be rehoused. A 100-strong task force of experts will also be brought in to provide practical advice and support to areas with a serious youth violence problem.

The move is part of plans to tackle young people at risk of being drawn into gangs and violence at every stage of their lives, including as troubled toddlers. Mrs May said youngsters should be targeted at every stage of their lives to help change the life stories of young people ending up dead or wounded on the streets.

Youth workers could be placed in hospital A&E departments to pick up and refer young people who come in for treatment for knife wounds, and young offenders with mental health needs or substance misuse problems could be diverted to specific schemes when they are arrested.

"Gang and youth violence is not a problem that can be solved by enforcement alone," she said. "We need to change the life stories of young people currently ending up dead or wounded on our streets or locked in a cycle of reoffending."

Under the plans, gang members who trade in guns could face life in jail following concerns that the same guns are being traded between gangs and used in a series of different attacks. Mrs May is considering bringing in a new offence of possession of an illegal firearm with intent to supply, with a maximum sentence of life in prison.