films that make a difference
Investigating Britain's Sex Gangs
By Tazeen Ahmad
Abby sat in the back of the car twisting her fingers nervously. She pushed her bangs out of her eyes but her hands quickly returned to her lap, clasped tightly together. Her chipped pink nail polish served as a reminder that these are the hands of a schoolgirl – a schoolgirl living a nightmare.
For the last two years, Abby had been repeatedly raped by men far older than she is. She was 13 years old the first time it happened.
“It went on from 7 o'clock, when it started getting dark, to roughly 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning,” she said.
Abby smiled, but the smile never reached her pretty hazel eyes. On this drizzly Friday afternoon, she showed us the places in the northern English city of Leeds her rapists had taken her: fast-food restaurants, hotels, alleyways.
We pulled up outside a children’s playground. Abby was brought here by someone she thought was her friend and then was raped by 20 different men. It was the same park she played in with her sisters. She said being here again made her feel sick.
Abby isn’t alone. The British government estimates that as many as 10,000 children in the U.K. may be victims of sexual exploitation by gangs, and fears the number could be much higher.
'Gang-grooming' The crime has been dubbed “on-street grooming” or “gang-grooming” and refers to actions taken by men to befriend young girls, sometimes as young as 11, using a combination of charm, coercion and blackmail to gain their trust and lower their inhibitions before they sexually exploit them. After the target is “groomed,” the girls are passed on to other men to be raped and gang-raped.
Over the past four years, 14 gang-grooming cases have come to court across the country and 46 men have been convicted.
The problem is feared to be so widespread that Sue Berelowitz, Britain’s Deputy Children’s Commissioner, announced the start of a two-year inquiry into the problem in October of this year.
The newly formed Child Sexual Exploitation – Gangs and Groups Inquiry will investigate the scope and scale of the issue so that police and local law enforcement have accurate data – beyond just anecdotal evidence – to help protect future victims.
One aspect of the issue that has gotten a lot of media attention in the U.K. is the race of the victims and perpetrators. There have been high-profile arrests of men of Pakistani descent who abused white girls.
But Berelowitz emphasized that unfortunately this is a widespread problem. "It would also be wrong for anyone to conclude or assert that this is an issue for one particular ethnic community," Berelowitz told the BBC.
Lord Nazir Ahmed, a leading Muslim politician of Pakistani descent, and many other members of the British-Pakistani community, have condemned the crimes and emphasized that an entire ethnic group should not be criticized for the actions of a few. “We have to find a way where we don’t associate the entire [Pakistani] community [with this], we have to put it into context,” Ahmed said.
Tazeen Ahmad talks to Shakeel Aziz, right, a youth worker in the north of England who uses religion to deter men from getting involved with gangs that groom young girls for sex.
Vicious pattern On-street grooming follows a pattern. Girls aged between 11 and 14 are most vulnerable and are often targeted by someone close to their own age, sometimes a younger brother or friend of the older men.
The location is usually innocuous – school gates, shopping centers, arcades. It can start with a car pulling up, young guys with charm and good looks engaging a girl in banter. Then cell phone numbers are exchanged and a friendship begins.
The men then work for several months to make the girls believe the friendship is genuine, the relationship meaningful.
“They are investing time and money in girls they target,” said Cat Tatman from Crop, a charity that supports the parents of sexually exploited children.
Once the girls have been won over the exploitation can really begin, she said.
The venues for the next stage vary. Sometimes the girls and their new acquaintances meet in parks and parking lots, often in cheap apartments and hotels – places known in gang circles as “party houses” where the girls are invited to come to “chill."
“It seems like a fun place to go,” Tatman said. “But there is very little of a party going on; often you are the only girl and it’s all men there.”
“Basically, you are the party,” she said.
Chloe, another former victim, met her attackers when she was just 12. The boys she befriended first were just a couple of years older.
Over several months she was introduced to an ever-growing group of men in northern England, many of them older. As a young schoolgirl she enjoyed hanging around cool, older guys with cars and fun places to go, and accepted the gifts of alcohol and cigarettes they offered her.
After a year, one of the men turned on her.
“He got me on the floor and was ripping my clothes off. There was a man holding my feet, a man holding my arms and trying to put his penis in my mouth,” Chloe said. “He was on top of me raping me and other men were stood watching and laughing.”
This was the first of many such horrific incidents for Chloe. Over the coming months she was raped and sexually assaulted by groups of men almost daily after school in parks, cars, apartments and public alleyways. When she refused to go and meet them, they threatened to gang-rape her mother. On one occasion when Chloe decided not to comply, she said her attackers raped her anally to teach her a lesson.
Men talk to Tazeen Ahmad about what motivates men who groom young girls.
Scared silent I wondered why Chloe and other victims don’t go straight to the police. Tatman from Crop explained that the perpetrators traumatize and terrify their victims and are thus able to manipulate them.
“If you’re a child exploited for two years, you believe they are like gods, you believe that the police can’t stop them, you believe that no one can,” she says.
And where are the victims’ parents in all this?
Keith and Teresa are a professional working couple. Their daughter was sexually exploited for two years from the age of 12. They seem smart and worldly-wise, concerned and devoted. They tell me these qualities were useless when faced with a powerful and sophisticated grooming process.
“They turned her against us, painting us as horrible people who didn’t understand her, whose life’s mission was to prevent her from having fun,” Teresa said. The men coached their daughter to lie effectively and hide the horror of her secret life for many months.
Even though their daughter escaped and is now recovering, Keith and Teresa are still under terrible strain.
Why do they do it?
In the course of our investigation, we found two young men in the city of Sheffield, in central England, who claimed to know gangs that groomed girls.
The men, in their late teens, sipped soft drinks as they explained in blunt terms what motivated the men they knew. I had narrowed it down to three things – kudos from their peers, easy sex and money.
They responded that money was the key ingredient for the men they knew, as many of the girls were being pimped, or sold, to others in the circle.
“A girl could have sex for 30 pounds ($48),” one told me. “Then there’s another one that could go for £10.”
Seems like an awfully small sum for such a horrific deed.
The British government’s new study hopes to delve deeper into why these men could commit such depravity and how to prevent it in the future. Their initial findings are expected to be published next summer, with a final report by September 2013.
strong>Alyas Kamani is a forward thinking Imam, the director of STREET (Strategy to Reach Educate and Empower Teenagers) UK Ltd, and a counsellor. He wrote tho commentary about the issues raised in the film.
Like the vast majority of people of Pakistani Muslim background, I was deeply outraged and appalled by the high profile stories about child sexual exploitation and sexual violence that have been perpetrated by men of Pakistani origin.
This prompted me to develop and deliver our ground breaking workshop programme with young people at risk of sexual violence in London and West Yorkshire, as well as send out a strong and clear message that sexual violence in all its forms is unacceptable and needs to be vigorously challenged by the community.
Regrettably, there have been cases of sexual violence in the Pakistani Muslim community and my view is that one case of rape and sexual abuse would be too many. However, there is a worrying pattern of increased numbers of cases across the UK in localities which have a high percentage Pakistani population.
Let me affirm that by highlighting these cases I am in no way saying this behaviour is endemic in the Pakistani Muslim community in the UK but, let's be honest and not live in denial. In my interaction with Muslims across the UK many Muslims I talk to have some knowledge of abuse and sexual violence cases like these and are aware of similar incidents in their communities.
Of course, no one wants to talk about the elephant in the room but surely even if there was just one case a year this is one case too many.
Yes, we could say these cases are one offs but equally we cannot live in denial. The same denial we had in relation to drug dealing and drug abuse issues in sections of the Muslim community across the UK which have now become commonplace and reflected in the wildly disproportionate numbers of Pakistani Muslims in the criminal justice system for drug related crime.
I ask, can we remain in denial of the worrying trend of increased sexual violence in the Pakistani Muslim community? I have decided to proactively address the issue from its root causes through our workshop 'Sexual Violence and Street Grooming' and by sending out a loud and clear message that sexual violence is unacceptable in the Pakistani Muslim community and the Islamic imperative is one which protects and safeguards women from violence in all its forms as well as sexual grooming and actively works to prevent the risk factors that cause sexual violence.
What kind of a society is it that cannot protect women, daughters, sisters, mothers, aunties and elders? In Islam, we recognise that a woman is the mother of her nation and if she is not safeguarded then the whole nation is violated. By extension, the distorted notion that somehow 'other women' are lesser and not as deserving of protection has no basis in Islam. All women are to be seen equally and afforded the same protection and we cannot dehumanise and discriminate one group of women to the exclusion of others.
Our workshops are unique in that they address challenging sex and relationship education (SRE) issues with groups that are perceived by many as 'hard to reach' and 'socially conservative' where SRE issues are seen as a taboo issue which are rarely addressed in an open and uninhibited forum.
We create an emotionally safe space for young people to explore SRE issues facilitated by experienced counsellors and mentors who have an in-depth understanding of the lived reality of young people, issues at the street level as regards 'at risk' behaviour, an ability to connect with young people through motivational workshop resources and materials and a deep understanding of cultural sensitivity.
Through this approach we have demonstrated that our SRE workshops have had a direct impact on challenging negative 'at risk' behaviour, developing resilience to sexual violence and developing positive attitudes and behaviours relating to sex and relationship issues.
Our workshop on sexual violence and street grooming addresses the following:
Evaluation by workshop participants has shown that 90% of participants rated the workshop sessions as very good to excellent, 85% rated them as their preferred format for receiving guidance on SRE issues, 80% felt that they would be able to educate and raise awareness amongst their peers relating to SRE issues and 80% of participants felt more confident to challenge 'at risk' behaviour amongst their peers.