What does our society say about women and girls?

Ingrained misogyny within sections of the British Pakistani community cannot be defended, but we all have to take collective responsibility for child sex exploitation.

“Above all, we need to ask why so many males, both young and old, think it is acceptable to treat both girls and boys as objects to be used and abused. We need to consider why professionals still miss the signs of abuse, and also to consider the impact of pornography on children,” wrote Sue Berelowitz on the release of the Office for the Children’s Commission interim report in Child Sexual exploitation in gangs and groups. The report was disturbing; around 16,500 children were deemed to be at high risk of child sex exploitation yet much of the response to the report was on whether it under-played the representation of Pakistani men in child sex exploitation (CSE).

As much as I agree with Berelowitz that Pakistani men abusing girls is one model among many models of CSE, the statistics in the report, which does not include data from all police forces, suggest there is an over-representation of Pakistani men working in groups guilty of on-street grooming, as opposed to acting alone or online which is predominately carried out by white men. Out of 77 recent convictions for on-street grooming by gangs, 67 have involved men of Pakistani origin. Further limited figures of this over-representation can be read here. However, finger-pointing at either under-emphasising or over-emphasising the ethnicities of the perpetrators do not help the victims who insensitively become political pawns.

Experts maintain that sexually-exploited children are not always identified and under-reporting by victims many of whom live in fear remains a big problem. Many children feel they won’t be believed and some don’t even recognise they are being exploited. BME women and girls are even less likely to report as they face an additional barrier of having to deal with a cultural enforced silence which is imposed on by their communities and families. Working within these communities, it is frustrating that there still remains a great deal of denial and defence over the concept of honour which exists within some Asian communities. Some of the parents of the victims in the Rochdale case talked about how they felt let down by statutory agencies. My experience with young Asian girls has shown how it is the parents, mothers in particular, who prevented their daughters from reporting familial child sexual abuse to external agencies. What is desperately needed are bespoke strategies with specialist interventions for combatting different models of CSE whether online grooming by white men or on-street grooming by men of Pakistani origin and equally developing policies that understand the constraint of cultural attitudes which prevents victims from reporting, otherwise many children unjustly will remain forgotten victims just because of their ethnicity.

Yet as a society we don’t feel comfortable in answering serious questions as asked by Berelowitz above, about prevailing attitudes towards women and girls. It’s too easy to point the finger at a minority community, as the other, but as a British Pakistani I see the objectification of women in minority and majority communities. After the Rochdale case in May, I wrote how at the heart of some British Pakistani communities, particularly those who came from rural, poor villages, patriarchy is the norm, and women, whether white or Asian are viewed as second class citizens but at different ends of the objectification spectrum. White women are dehumanised by being perceived as sexual objects. Asian women including those within one’s own family are dehumanised by being denied agency, autonomy and basic rights. The common thread between both attitudes towards women however is control and domination and that women are there to be used and abused.

Yet at the same time how can we possibly ignore prevailing attitudes towards women and girls in wider British society? Over the past three decades there has been a dramatic increase in the use of sexualised imagery of women and children in advertising. Pornography is normalised and unlike previous generations, it has become easily accessible by our children through the use of smart phones and the internet. A Home Office report in 2010 suggests that online pornography is increasingly dominated by themes of aggression and control and that exposure to pornography is related to male sexual aggression against women and a tendency to view them as objects. Young people not only have warped expectations of sex but are replicating what they have seen, including sexual violence. Is it really surprising therefore that teenage girls between 16 and 19 are now the group most at risk of domestic violence, closely followed by girls aged 20-24? This teacher’s graphic account of what she witnesses at school on a daily basis should make anyone question what our society says about women and girls.

The Savile case highlighted how only thirty to forty years ago, a misogynistic “groupie culture” was part and parcel of life. I can’t help wonder how just as today we stand aghast at the cultural attitudes that prevailed then, we too in 30 years’ time will stand aghast at why we didn’t tackle the normalisation of violent pornography and its impact on our children. Changing cultural attitudes is no small feat but we need to have a robust yet sensitive debate on this issue where we all take collective responsibility for CSE. Ingrained misogyny within sections of the British Pakistani community cannot be defended but it is imperative that policies are developed to tackle harmful cultural attitudes wherever they exist in society.

Sara Khan is director of Inspire, a British Muslim women's human rights organisation

A newspaper advertising board outside a corner shop in Rochdale. Photograph: Getty Images
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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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