Page last updated at 15:27 GMT, Thursday, 5 June 2008 16:27 UK

'I turned my back on street life'

By Jon Kelly
BBC News

Young people have been sharing their views with the prime minister about how to tackle crime and gang culture on Britain's streets.

Sarah's tough upbringing in inner-city London offered her few prospects beyond crime, drugs and violence.

Gang of youths
Girls as well as boys are vulnerable to the lure of gang culture, Sarah says
"I was surrounded by that lifestyle. It was there are soon as I stepped onto my doorstep," she recalls.

"It takes over everything. To this day I've got friends who can't walk on their own onto the next street in case someone recognises them and attacks them.

"The reason people carry knives is because they don't feel safe."

But against the odds, Sarah, now 17, managed to break free.

'Sucked in'

She is preparing to sit three A-levels and hopes to start a university course in the autumn. She was among a group of young people invited by Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Home Secretary Jacqui Smith to Downing Street to discuss how to combat youth crime.

You can't back down, you can't lose status

But she said it was a difficult task overcoming the peer pressure which stood in the way of her choices.

"Peer pressure is a massive obstacle and a lot of people don't feel they can stand up to it," she says.

"Someone confronts you, you can't back down, you can't lose status. And before you know it you're sucked in.

"Even as a girl I felt the pull of that lifestyle. My worry is that a lot of people aren't strong enough to stand up to it."

She speaks not just for herself. A consultation by the children's charity NCH found 63% of young people and children believe knife crime was directly linked to image, and the same proportion believe peer pressure is its main cause.

'Easy choice'

Sarah's message to the politicians was clear.

Young people need opportunities, she told them - apprenticeships, the prospect of a proper career to offer a lure away from crime.

She insisted that better role models were needed to provide a positive example of what they can achieve.

"When you see people with money who've come from backgrounds like mine, it's always rappers, footballers - or gangsters," she says.

"But what about if we could look to a lawyer, or a businessman, who had come up from the same places that we did?"

With ambitions for a career as a youth worker helping young people like herself, Sarah hopes that one day she might become a role model herself.

Sarah says: "I turned my back on those attitudes. It took strength, but I hope in the future others have the options to make it an easy choice."

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