Nazir Afzal’s Diary: the Manchester bombing was an attack on women and girls

The bomber chose the Ariana Grande concert last May specifically because of the mainly female make-up of her audience.

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In the week of the anniversary of the atrocity at the Manchester Arena – a place my kids and I have visited many times – and the beginning of the Grenfell Inquiry, we should remember who it is that keeps us safe, who runs towards every disaster while most of us run away.

As some readers might know I walked out of my last job, as head of the national body for police commissioners, after the terror attack in Manchester so that I could speak up about the fact that the attack was specifically aimed at women and girls. The bomber chose Ariana Grande (a real hero of mine) because of the make-up of her audience.

I regularly meet with groups tackling violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence. I am privileged to be patron of several, including the Halo Project in Middlesbrough. I am always in awe of the hundreds of women-led NGOs protecting victims in every community without fanfare or funding. They rely on thousands of volunteers who give up their time because of their commitment, passion and dedication. (Those three words are used when they want you to do something for free.)

However, these groups have nothing to spend on salaries once they have paid for buildings and helplines. Halo’s refuge runs out of funding in August and every funder is “considering” the future while every philanthropist tells them it doesn’t meet with their “business planning”. It is shocking that abused women and children are going to be thrown on to the streets or back into the clutches of their abuser because we can’t fund their refuge. Their necessary invisibility is the reason why we treat them with such disdain. But when a child who is treated with such contempt ends up committing a criminal offence later in life, we only have ourselves to blame.

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I spoke at the annual meeting of the National Secure Accommodation network, which manages the secure homes where children who have committed very serious offences are kept behind closed doors – because that’s where, as a society, we want them.

These are the children we pretend we don’t have, because they commit crimes, including murder. We also want their keepers to be invisible so that we’re not reminded of their existence.

Invisibility comes at a price, though, because the government and local authorities can reduce their budgets without there ever being an outcry from the public. Yet these extraordinary people deeply care about their residents – often hearing the most brutal stories of adverse childhood experience and mental trauma that preceded horrific crimes. Their job is to rehabilitate these children, to counsel and advise while keeping them behind several locked doors so we don’t have to see them.

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Victims come in many forms. Sex workers are rarely thought about because, again, we want to pretend they don’t exist. I recently chaired the Welsh Women’s Aid conference on safeguarding sex workers. Thousands of (mainly) women are trading their bodies for money, in every town and city, but, once again, we see right through them.

Many are trafficked and many more are exploited. As a community, sex workers suffer the highest number of rape attacks and have the lowest level of reporting to police. Much of the wider public treats them with disdain in a scripted show of morality – while the men buying them do so with impunity, before going back to their visible lives.

There are, of course, women who see it as a life choice and some work in brothels or join collectives for protection, but substantial numbers are victims of broken lives, of addiction, and of exploiters and organised criminals. The conference highlighted that protecting them was the first duty of authorities and that police action should be aimed at the men demanding their bodies. Men and their entitlement – their privilege – remain the root cause of so much harm.

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Apparently, there was a wedding at the weekend. I admit that this was the first royal wedding I watched since Princess Diana’s and I was touched by the love and affection that the couple have for each other. I also know how much preparation goes into an event like this among the emergency services to ensure it passes safely. Officers from several forces descended on Windsor, and we were blessed (by Bishop Michael Curry, perhaps) that there were no serious incidents elsewhere in the country that a struggling, depleted police force would have had to respond to. One community activist told me that in her area “pizza gets to your house before the police”.

Take away 21,000 police officers, several thousand PCSOs, thousands more civilian police staff and guess what, crime goes up! They sacrifice so much to keep us safe.

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My daughter Marina is studying law at Bristol University – despite my attempts to dissuade her – and we had a chat about what it is like to be a girl in 2018. In truth, not a lot different to 1918. Around the world, many girls are neglected by their families, denied even a basic education, and treated as cheap slave labour before they are forcibly married off while they are still children.

Millions more are abused physically and sexually by men. Exploited across countries and between countries. Destined to live a life where men make all the rules and women have to obey them. Where male power and control is all we protect at the expense of basic human rights.

Extremism towards women and girls is not confined to so-called caliphates, it is found everywhere and anywhere you look. Gender terrorism pervades every society – although men never call it that, because it would then need a national and international response. We need more heroes.

Nazir Afzal OBE is a lawyer who campaigns on child sexual exploitation and violence against women

This article appears in the 23 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Age of the strongman