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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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.