"Bands of Sisters"

Deep inside Davao City's Maa Cemetery, a band of girls gathers to remember one of their own.

It is September 28, the Warshock gang's second anniversary. Few of these saddened teenagers have much to say. None have a reason to celebrate.

"We'll miss your smile, the advice you gave to each and every one of us, and all the happy moments we had together," Jerlyn tearfully reads from a farewell note.

Stooping down to the newly-cut gravestone, she lights her eulogy with a red candle and holds the folded piece of paper over the flame until it crumbles into ashes.  One by one, the Warshocks follow suit and burn written promises made to the friend whom they once called "Cao". Most pledge not to hunt down her killer. Others vow to give up their vices. All remember how funny Macao could be at parties and how tough she got when trouble came knocking.

Rarely does a girl from one of the 150 gangs in this southern Philippine city get killed. When riots erupt, it's usually groups of boys who stab each other with broken bottles and indyan panas (Indian arrows). Yet the streets are just as mean to girls as they are to boys. Both cling to gangs for protection and a sense of belonging. However, for teenaged girls who have been neglected or abused, gangs provide their members with a place of refuge otherwise unavailable to them.  "It's not surprising that girls are forming their own groups to meet their adolescent needs", says Pilgrim Bliss Gayo-Guasa, coordinator of Tambayan-Center for the Care of Abused Children Inc., a non-government organization that works with Davao City's street youth. "It's an expression of self-help and a structure in which they support each other. One has to be part of a group to survive the streets."

Drugs, prostitution, and violence may be a regular part of the street reality. Yet few have a say in the matter when going home means facing a heavy-handed father. With no one to answer to, the world is theirs to explore, to test its limits and explode conventional norms of who a girl should or should not be.

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