As the fifth London Southbank Women of the World (WOW) festival came to a close on International Women’s Day, the audience of 2,500 was asked to imagine a world where girls and boys were treated equally across gender, race and class. The call came from Baroness Doreen Lawrence, a woman who has tirelessly campaigned for justice following the murder of her son Stephen in a racist attack in London in 1993. Broadcaster Sandi Toksvig, who hosted the event at London’s Royal Festival Hall, had asked us to imagine that Doreen was the Home Secretary in her new ‘Rescue Party’ feminist cabinet. The party would follow traditional lifeboat logic: women and children first.
Doreen rose to the imaginary occasion, opening her speech with the words, ‘as Home Secretary I will’. Recognising the equality of our young people, she told us, is something her government would prioritise; it is something, she added, that this government – and previous governments – have failed to achieve.
It was a powerful and rousing thought experiment for those of us who had heard much throughout the seven day feminist festival of the unprecedented horrors facing girls globally: from a high risk of suicide to sexual violence; from forced marriage to FGM. These are issues that have been extensively covered on openDemocracy 50.50. For as Lyric Thompson wrote in September last year, there is no demographic that has been more sorely overlooked by the international community, and whose rights and needs must be urgently addressed, than adolescent girls. As females and as young people, Lyric explains, adolescent girls face ‘multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and vulnerability; their rights are doubly at risk.’
Speakers at the WOW festival addressed these threats from multiple standpoints – some, such as UK International Development Secretary Justine Greening, spoke to a policy discourse focused on saving certain subgroups of children; meanwhile other women, such as Vian Dakhil, the only Yazidi MP in Iraq’s parliament, and Obiageli Ezekwesili, who founded the Bring Back Our Girls campaign in Nigeria, spoke with critical urgency of their strategies to fight the enslavement of young women in the name of extremist patriarchal ideologies.
I left the festival with a fire in the belly and one thought confirmed: some girls across the globe – because of their poverty, social class and invisibility - are still seen in the eyes of police, governments, and the international community as a whole - as more disposable than others.
Protesters with the #Bringbackourgirls campaign in Nigeria. (Photo: Turner)
Tackling sexual exploitation on Britain’s streets: ‘disposable girls’
The term ‘disposable girls’ stemmed from a panel entitled Sexual Abuse and Local Authorities which explored responses to revelations of the appalling sexual exploitation of some 1,400 girls – some as young as 11 - in the UK town of Rotherham between 1997 and 2013. Ronke Phillips, ITV London Tonight correspondent stressed, introducing the panel, that many girls had faced multiple attacks and gang rapes as well as trafficking, brutality and humiliation. Testimony that has emerged in the months subsequent to the revelations gives but a glimpse of the horrors the girls were forced to endure: one saw another being doused in petrol; another was forced to watch another girl being raped.
Panellists included Sharon Evans, chief executive of DotCom Charity and survivor; Sue Bereloqitz, deputy children’s commissioner; and Nazir Afzal, chief crown prosecutor of the Crown Prosecution Service for North West England. They were asked to explore a familiar question which now haunts many in Britain: how were the children victim to such systematic and heinous abuse left unseen and unheard for all these years?
We know that that the attacks in Rotherham were not unique. Over a 2 year inquiry on sexual exploitation, the children’s commissioner identified 2,409 known victims of child sexual exploitation in a 14 months period. Other organised abuse has recently been uncovered in Rochdale, Oxford, London, Nottingham, Derby and Bradford to name but a few sites, and without mentioning the string of celebrity sex abusers unmasked by Operation Yew Tree.
A key factor which emerged from the panellists’ testimonies was that, as Reni Eddo-Lodge has argued on 50.50, the backgrounds of the girls being abused often led them to be either ignored or disbelieved. In the words of Nazir, speaking of the Rochdale case, ‘they themselves were criminalised...herein lies the fire’. Research by the children’s commissioner reports that children at risk of sexual exploitation are typically working class: girls living in very dysfunctional chaotic households, with parents with drug and alcohol problems or mental health problems, and those living in gang involved neighbourhoods. Although sexual exploitation can affect all girls and boys, young people in care homes are especially vulnerable. In such contexts, the lines of victim and ‘criminal’ are often perversely blurred. As Tehmina Kazi has reported, many victims of sexual exploitation are forced to commit crimes themselves, often under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Girls are also being failed, claimed Sue, by the fact that the burden remains on the child to make a disclosure. Stressing the importance of raising awareness of risk factors and possible signs, she told the story of one 11 year old girl who had been raped over 3 days by 14 different boys. The same girl had been sexually abused in her family environment, probably from infancy. ‘One day’ Sue explained, ‘she turned up to school with semen on her clothes but nobody did anything because she didn’t give a disclosure. The onus must be with us – each and every one of us – as adults’.
Nazir, who has presided over an indomitable number of sexual exploitation case, firmly located the source of the abuse in the patriarchal system. Cautioning against seeing the problem as primarily an issue with the Asian or Muslim community – as much media did following the revelation that many of the Rotherham abusers were Asian – he stressed, ‘the driver is not ethnicity but gender; the power men have – often in large groups... to take advantage of the most chaotic youth’. Sexual exploitation happens in all communities, he continued, citing the recent ill reported case of 10 white men prosecuted in North Yorkshire for sexually exploiting a 13 year old girl. What is more, the majority of cases of sexual exploitation in Britain are still committed in the family environment.
While the audience lauded this explanation, and discussion of the attackers’ motives stopped there, activist Tehmina Kazi, writing on 50.50, has cautioned against writing off the role of misappropriated religious ideologies completely. ‘Some of the recent child sexual exploitation cases’, she argues, ‘can be linked to negative cultural attitudes very clearly’.
In an effort to tackle sexual exploitation of girls in Britain, the children’s commissioner has identified a range of risk and potential victim signs which have been distributed to local authorities and schools across the country and to all police forces. ‘These are lists’, says Sue, but ‘these are important lists’. Similarly a programme, devised by Sharon which advises children on how to stay safe and speak up is currently been rolled out to 33,000 children. But, Sharon explains, the endurance of a culture of disbelief and girls’ lack of voice is holding back its wider dissemination. To date the Department of Education has refused to endorse the programme and as such, the decision to run it or not lies with each school.
Rich girl, poor girl: who is ‘saved’?
Issues of class discrimination and voicelessness do not just affect girls suffering from abduction and sexual exploitation in the UK, but across the world. In a panel entitled Refusing to be Silenced on women and girls in areas of conflict, Obiageli Ezekwesili, who founded the Bring Back Our Girls campaign following the kidnapping of 273 Nigerian school girls by terrorist group Boko Haram on April 15th last year, explained: ‘the fact the girls were the children of poorer people meant that their voice was not as amplified. It would have been different if they were richer girls’. In other words, while Boko Haram does not discriminate in the types of girls it abducts – all of them seen as lesser creatures - the government and international community discriminates in terms of who is ‘saved’. 48 hours after an abduction are the most critical for saving the victims, Obiageli explained, ‘yet it was 3 weeks before the girls were acknowledged as disappeared. Now it has been 327 days and the world literally moved on, but the girls are not back’.
Refusing to be silenced. Photo: RAW/WAR
As Fatimah Kelleher wrote for 50.50 in June last year, structural inequality remains a huge problem in Northern Nigeria: ‘representative voices from women most impacted by the region’s poverty and inequality still need to be drawn-out, especially as inequalities between women in the region are heavily defined by economic class, aristocratic heredity, and religious marginalisation’.
To date there has been no reckoning, says Obliageli, for the girls are the opposite of a policy priority; they are victims of ‘a serious political fight’ between the regional government and national politics: ‘double victims, of Boko Haram and the government’. A week before the parliamentary elections the government decided to launch a six week offensive against Boko Haram to try and find them, but ‘we are now three weeks in and nothing tangible has emerged in terms of rescuing the girls’.
Obiageli’s fight has much in common with two other women who spoke on her panel: Angelina Atyam, whose daughter was kidnapped in Uganda by the Lord’s Resitance Army, and Vian Dakhil, who was at the festival to receive the 2015 Anna Politkovskaya Award for her work fighting against the dire situation facing girls in Yazidi communities in Iraq. 5,000 Yazidi girls have been imprisoned by the Islamic State and girls as young as 11 or 12 are being raped daily. As Mariz Tadros has argued on 50.50, these girls are being explicitly targeted on account of their religious faith: ‘the battle to annihilate their communities is gendered in ways we cannot ignore.’ But the media is not covering the Yazidi story, Vian reminded us. Meanwhile the reports that are emerging are horrific. A recent story revealed that dozens of girls are committing suicide in order to avoid sex slavery. Despite some help, which followed an impassioned speech by Vian to the Iraqi parliament, like the girls abducted by Boko Haram, many Yazidi girls are being ignored both at home and by the international community. Only very limited resources are being delivered.
Vian Dakhil speaking in Parliament
Governments the world over have been systematically failing girls. Article 34 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is clear that ‘governments must protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation’; meanwhile, Article 35 stresses that ‘governments must ensure that children are not abducted or sold’. Yet it would appear whether your rights on respected – and whether or not you are believed as a girl - still depends on both your social class and status: as Doreen Lawrence made clear, girls and boys are not born equal in the eyes of government. The fight for girls’ protection in this context, whether from sexual exploitation or abduction, is not about saving individuals. It is about profound structural change in patriarchal society. The brave women and men who spoke out throughout the Women of the World festival showed that the costs of reporting these truths and fighting for structural change can be desperately high. But we must continue the fight. For as Sharon commented in relation to her own experience of being ignored, ‘It’s the silence that allows people to carry on the crime’.