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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.

A newspaper advertising board outside a corner shop in Rochdale
A newspaper advertising board outside a corner shop in Rochdale. Photograph: Getty Images

“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