Turning a blind eye to child abuse is simply not an option

The Deputy Children’s Commissioner report should be a wake-up call to government.

The report by the Deputy Children’s Commissioner has rightly been described as a wakeup call - not just because the numbers of children who are at risk of abuse runs to over 16,000 according to the report, but because it challenges some of the myths about child abuse that have been repeated across the media in recent weeks and months.

The first is the importance of not being alarmist. The fact that child exploitation happens at all is a serious concern, but the point made by this report is not that child sexual exploitation is happening everywhere – simply that it can happen anywhere - and as a consequence we need to be proactive in recognising and tackling it.

This begs the question, who is "we"? In response to tragic cases of child abuse it is common to focus on the failure of frontline professionals who are supposed to protect them but the report, with its helpful checklist of warning signs, lays the responsibility to keep children safe not just at their door, but with the public as well.

It is clear from recent high profile cases, in Rochdale or involving Jimmy Savile, that collectively we are not good enough at responding to children, particularly older teenagers, who are often labelled as promiscuous or troublesome rather than vulnerable young people. This produces a culture in which some children are blamed for their own abuse. As the report shows clearly, children cannot consent to their own exploitation.

But nobody could read this report without wanting to know how to prevent such appalling abuse from happening in the first place. That is why the role of the public is so crucially important. The NSPCC, which deals with calls to its adult helpline, makes the point that often the general public does not understand what constitutes abuse. That is why the Government should build on the report with a public awareness campaign to help parents, friends, and young people themselves, to identify sexual exploitation and know how and where to report it.

It is a common feature of exploitation to present abusive behaviour as loving and supportive. The report shows that children who are groomed or sexually exploited do not necessarily recognise their treatment as abuse and have little understanding of what sexual exploitation looks like. It is devastating that so many young people do not know the difference between good relationships and exploitative ones. The report also highlights child-on-child exploitation, so we must urgently equip children with the tools they need to recognise abusive behaviour. Labour’s pledge to introduce compulsory sex and relationship education is part of the solution - an essential plank of a coherent strategy to tackle child sexual exploitation, focused on prevention.

Finally the report makes an important and powerful point about the danger of focusing on ethnicity, age or gender. Despite recent high profile cases featuring Pakistani men, we know that child exploitation happens in all communities. Around 10 per cent of the victims identified by the Children’s Commissioner were boys. The majority of the perpetrators were white, and some were children themselves. While we should not shy away from investigating child abuse in any community, if we look at child exploitation as anything other than an appalling abuse of power we risk overlooking child victims who do not fit a preconceived stereotypical image.

A Government source was reported as saying that it was "difficult to overstate the contempt" with which ministers viewed the report’s conclusions. The report has also been called "hysterical" and "highly emotional" by senior Whitehall figures in this morning’s press. Yet it sets out the complex reality of child sexual exploitation - often extremely violent, lasting over months and years, involving victims who are moved across boundaries and overlooked by the public and professionals that come into contact with them. The devastating and enduring impact on victims and their families deserves a co-ordinated national response that gives children, the public and professionals the knowledge and confidence to take action. In this context perhaps the biggest wakeup call is to government. This report shows that turning a blind eye to child abuse is simply not an option.

Lisa Nandy is Labour MP for Wigan

Rochdale where nine men were arrested for child sexual exploitation in 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

Lisa Nandy is the MP for Wigan. She was formerly Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.

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Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.