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  • Writer's pictureClare Jerrom

Tens of thousands of girls at risk of criminal or sexual exploitation

Tens of thousands of girls in England are vulnerable to serious violence and many of these girls are likely to also be at risk of sexual or criminal exploitation, the Commission on Young Lives has warned.

Jointly with Manchester Metropolitan University's Manchester Centre for Youth Studies, the Commission carried out research which found that many vulnerable girls and young women in England are, behind closed doors, being groomed into holding weapons or drugs for boys, young men, or gangs.

They are victims of sexual assault, rape, and violent relationships, living with extreme risks, and their life chances are being diminished as a result, the report adds.

Anne Longfield, Chair of the Commission on Young Lives, said: "The horrific consequences of gang violence on boys are played out regularly on our streets and in the news and are rightly a major cause of concern. But it is now clear that thousands of girls are also being harmed, sexually assaulted, raped or controlled in a way and on a scale that is not being recognized.

"Sadly, girls' experiences are often hidden - out of sight and out of mind with most of the services and support to tackle serious violence, county lines and exploitation focusing on boys," she added.

It has been estimated that over 200,000 children in England aged 11-to-17 are vulnerable to serious violence and around 20% to 30% are girls. This means that there could be as many as 60,000 girls in England vulnerable to serious violence, with many of these girls at risk of sexual assault and criminal exploitation.

Covid has exacerbated many of these risks, yet the support systems to divert and protect girls and young women have not received the same level of attention as those for boys and young men at risk of county lines and serious violence.

While most of these girls are not 'gang members' themselves, some are involved with or affected by gangs, and they are being exposed to environments where there are very high levels of control, sexual exploitation, and criminal activity.

Anne Longfield added: "We have heard how young men are often treated in one way, and young women in another. Young women arriving at an A&E with mental health crises caused by traumatic experiences are less likely to be asked what is going on in their lives than a boy who arrives having been stabbed."

"Too many vulnerable girls and women are suffering in silence. We have heard repeatedly how many girls do not feel able to talk about what is happening to them. They don't want to approach anyone for support because they are scared and feel unsafe. They can feel ashamed to talk about being abused or exploited."

"If we don't recognise the prevalence of violence and control experienced by some vulnerable girls and young women, it will remain unseen and undetected, with devastating effects," she warned.

The research recommends a range of policy recommendations to improve support for vulnerable girls and young women, including:

  • The protection of girls and young women from harm in gang related contexts should be a priority in safeguarding frameworks, and among wider violence against women and girls' strategies.

  • There should be specialist educational programmes for all secondary schools in violence hot spot areas and all Pupil Referral Units that support girls to stay safe from exploitation, control, and harm.

  • Exclusion or non-attendance at school and going missing should trigger an automatic referral to a Girls Practitioner to be based in local Youth Practitioner teams in and around schools.

  • Teachers, health professionals, the police, and children's services should receive training to raise awareness of the impact of vulnerability and trauma on girls and young women.

Furthermore, there should be specialist youth programmes to support girls at risk of harm, control and exploitation and this should be a priority for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport's Youth Promise funding.

There should also be specialist girls and young women practitioners based in Accident and Emergency Departments in all 20 violence hot spot areas.

Anne Longfield highlights that the 'adultification' of BME girls also continues to undermine support for some young women, with too many Black and mixed girls being seen as more resilient and more able to cope with situations that should demand intervention.

"It is time to recognise the threats and risks facing girls and break the conspiracy of silence that has left too many vulnerable young women without the access to support that can protect them from exploitation harm and encourage them to meet their aspirations," she said.

Sammy Odoi, managing director at Wipers, said: "There should be no assumptions made about young women from ethnic minority communities: to do so, is discriminatory."

"All young women and girls at risk of violence or sexual exploitation should be identified and referred to specialist services as a matter of urgency, regardless of their ethnicity."

"Specialist programmes working with young women need to be prioritised and young women at risk of exploitation should have access to a mentor, a trusted adult, to help them navigate their way out of difficult and dangerous situations."

"Fear and control play a huge role in keeping young women in dangerous situations, and having access to a trusted adult who can show them alternative life choices would enable young women to break free from controlled and coercive behaviour and enable them to make positive life choices and reach their potential," concluded Sammy Odoi.


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