Young people have spoken of sexual abuse for years. We just haven’t listened

Published November 3, 2014 by JS2

Ann Coffey MP

Ann Coffey’s report reveals how young people distrust statutory authorities and how much faith they place in peer mentoring and grassroots support

In a week where everyone seemingly has a view on the prevalence of child sexual exploitation (CSE) across Greater Manchester, you may approach this article with a weary eye. Ann Coffey’s report, which claims that CSE has become a “social norm” in some areas, makes for depressing reading – especially for those who already know it to be true.

I lead a small charity called Reclaim. We are not specialists in CSE, but rather in ensuring that working-class young people from pressurised communities have a voice and some level of influence over policy and decision-making. Our young people campaign tirelessly on the issues that affect them and their families. They are young leaders and critical thinkers, encouraged to use their voices effectively to campaign for positive social change.

In 2013 a group of 30 girls from Salford, all aged 13, wrote an impressive youth manifesto. Their final point: “Your daughters should be free to walk around the streets without being harassed by older men.”

Within that small group of young girls the issue of sexual harassment was recurrent: men stopping the girls as they made their way home from school, guys in corner shops offering free cigarettes and sweets in exchange for phone numbers.

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In 2009 we had concerns about a 14-year-old girl, well known to social services and on the “at risk” register. She was pregnant by a 26-year-old man and living with him in a flat. She had not attended school for months and so they just took her off roll. We contacted social services several times to pass on our concerns and the final feedback we received was: “Just accept she is free to make her own sexual choices.” She was 14.

We now know that this girl was being repeatedly raped by several older men after a period of grooming. Free to make her own sexual choices? No. Raped, abandoned, abused, vulnerable and in need of intensive support. She was the “wrong” type of victim and therefore left to fend for herself.

I spoke to her again recently to gain some understanding of what really happens when you’re a young girl in this situation. She was candid and what I heard will stay with me for ever: multiple perpetrators, rapes, filming, victims farmed out to men in nearby towns, older girls paid to procure younger vulnerable girls. She said: “Girls need to realise how much things really cost. When I was 13 I was given a little bottle of vodka by a shopkeeper in Manchester. I found out the real cost later that night; four blow jobs to old men.”

There are inspiring voluntary organisations doing excellent work in this field; often with young people at the fore and passionate staff working around the clock. We’re all battered and bruised from wrestling for the scraps left of centralised and localised funding. Coffey’s report reveals the deep distrust young people have of statutory authorities and how much faith they place in peer mentoring and in independent, grassroots support. My hope is that social services commissioners will trust those working directly with children and teenagers to deliver the outcomes needed to end the horrors of the sexual exploitation of children.

We held a youth conference in central Manchester last week. The first manifesto point agreed by the group of 50 teenagers was: “Challenge the abuse of children and young people by starting a campaign to empower people to speak up.”

None of the recent stories about sexual exploitation are news to the young people who live in these communities. They’ve been aware and talking about these issues for years. We just haven’t listened.

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