A young woman has described how she was raped as part of a gang initiation - as campaigners call on more to be done to protect girls from gangs.

Charities, politicians and police have said Croydon is one of a number of problem London boroughs where girls in gangs are exploited and subjected to sexual violence from male leaders.

In one shocking case study, a girl from the north of the borough told the Croydon Guardian she was raped as part of an initiation into a gang and said she was told to carry weapons and drugs as she was less likely to get caught.

The same victim, said she was stabbed when she tried to get out of the gang.

Another gang member in the borough was told he had to rape his sister if he was to be accepted into the group.

Charities working in Croydon said the shocking stories highlight the variety of roles girls have in gangs and how even being related to a gang member can have significant consequences.

Croydon Police said they were aware of girls being sexually exploited by gangs and being used to hide and carry weapons but said offences are significantly under-reported because the girls involved fear repercussions.

Last week the Centre for Social Justice and youth charity XLP published a report about girls and gangs.

It estimated thousands of girls and young women are involved in gangs but little is known about how gang life affects their lives and their families.

Croydon has been highlighted as one of about 33 areas nationally as having a problem with girls directly and indirectly affected by gangs.

Charities such as the JAGs Foundation and Ment4 have both said more early intervention work needs to be done with vulnerable girls, especially in schools where it is believed girls are being targeted.

One young woman, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Croydon Guardian she first got involved in a gang through friends at school.

As a teenager she carried and hid weapons, including a gun, as she said she was less likely to get caught.

The woman, who is now in her early twenties, said leaders threatened her as they "had stuff on her" due to the things she had done for the group.

She said she was raped as part of a gang initiation but said many girls may not see it as rape until they have left the gang.

She added: "I was quite fortunate during the time I was in the gang but when I wanted to get out of it I did get hurt. They stabbed me.

"I had been in it for a long time but I had to figure out myself how to get out. It was like a game of snakes and ladders. I would take some steps forward then take 400 steps back. It was a scary time in many ways."

Councillor Toni Letts, of Selhurst ward, said there needed to be sustained work with girls to tackle the issue.

Coun Letts, the former chief executive of south London YMCA, said she knew of girls who had been used for gang initiations which involved having sex with new members whilst being watched by others.

The Labour councillor also highlighted an example of a boy who was told to rape his sister. As a result she had to leave Croydon.

She said: "Modern day gangs believe these women are to be used and abused. The thing is younger and younger people are getting involved.

"We must not let this issue get any worse. There has always been gangs but it has developed into something different over the last couple of years.

"There needs to be more education around relationships and self respect and total awareness about what happens in these gangs and groups."

A Croydon police spokesman said the MPS acknowledged the police could not tackle this issue alone and said they are committed to a multi-agency approach to tackle the issue.

What needs to be done?

Tracey Ford, from the JAGS Foundation which works with young women affected by gangs, said: "There needs to be more intervention in schools. That would help give girls some of the support they need.

"Girls need to feel safe before they start sharing information and that is not happening at the moment.

"If people say there is not a problem in Croydon then they are the same people who said there wasn’t a problem with knife crime when we had six stabbing in ten days earlier this year."

Pete Stanley, director of Ment4 which supports teenagers aged 12 to 17 who are in the criminal justice system, said most of the girls are vulnerable to negative peer pressure, exploitation and to gangs.

He said: "There is pressure on the girls from gangs, but most are ‘wannabes’ rather than belonging officially to gangs. The effect on them is often more a copying of gang behaviour in groups of four or five, rather than actual gang activity.

"To that extent, the effect of gangs is wider than their own activity. One young girl we knew told us we were the fifteenth organisation she was involved with. Can that be helpful?

"They need intensive support through mentoring by people who will see them several times a week. They need to build trust with people who will listen to them."

What is being done?

Laura Butterworth, who is Croydon’s project manager for the Safer London Foundation which is based at the Turnaround Centre, works specifically with young women who have been involved in gangs.

She said: "The local authorities and police in Croydon have been great with us and have been very helpful in tackling this issue.

"We have been in the borough just over two years and we are doing intensive one to one work with women who have suffered sexual exploitation in gangs.

"This issue affects girls who are going out with gang members, sisters of gang members, next door neighbours, negative effects are hard to escape and there are a lot of different types of women who are negatively impacted by gangs. It could be by the virtue of where they live.

"Croydon is the same as many of the boroughs in London in the sense that we are at the beginning of the mapping process of this issue."