Light shines in darkness


The news yesterday that 18 people were found guilty of involvement in a sex grooming network in Newcastle sent shockwaves through the country.

A scene from the BBC drama ‘Three Girls’

It comes shortly after the BBC’s drama Three Girls, detailing some of what happened in Rochdale, where nine men were convicted for their role in working to secure underage girls for sex.

Newcastle, Rochdale: these are not isolated incidents. Indeed, Viva’s partner network Doorsteps was borne from Operation Bullfinch, the investigation in Oxford which saw seven men jailed in 2013, with police estimating that around 373 may have been targeted for sex in a period of sixteen years.

When your organisation is devoted to ensuring the wellbeing of children worldwide, you cannot stay silent when just around the corner from your head office, there are children in immediate danger.

Response to the Newcastle case has predominantly been one of outrage. But as ever, some damaging falsehoods have arisen.

The first is that of language. In Three Girls, social workers tell the parents of one of the victims that she has been working as a child prostitute. A sexual health worker, outraged by this, emphatically states, “There’s no such thing as a child prostitute. What there is, is a child who’s being abused.”

As human beings, we immediately like to rationalise why terrible things happen. The downside to this, is that we end up either deliberately or inadvertently, blaming the victim. We try to establish what the victim might have done, we discern whether or not they were engaging in risky behaviours.

Sammy Woodhouse (right), a survivor of the Rotherham grooming gang, who now advises police forces on the issue, said this of her relationship with the police whilst she was being abused: “They always saw me as [her abuser’s] equal. I was never treated as a victim. I was seen as part of his gang, his mistress.”

Very few things in life are black and white, but this is: children are never complicit in their abuse.

The second falsehood is that we can predict the cast involved, a certain type of man, a certain type of girl. Whilst it would be naïve to ignore some of the trends, it is equally important to state that abusers are opportunistic and will seek out vulnerable children and young people indiscriminately.

There are myriad push and pull factors which do put children at greater risk, but some of these are not confined to a particular socioeconomic status.

There are warning signs to look out for in children and young people. These include: poor self-hygiene; sexually transmitted diseases; persistent truanting; inappropriate overt sexual behaviour; low self-esteem and self-harming; having multiple mobile phones; claiming to have an older boyfriend; being secretive; spending time with unknown associates; returning from absconding either looking more untidy than expected or looking more well cared for than expected. A fuller list can be seen here.

The third falsehood, is that to be a victim of sexual exploitation is to have a full stop abruptly inserted into your world, that your life has been destroyed beyond recognition. It is important not to understate the devastating impact this abuse has children. It will be a long road to recovery.

As Woodhouse comments, “It will always be with me, what he did. I have been given a life sentence. I’m just determined to try to not let him control my life like he has done – I’m determined to be in control of my own destiny.”

Here at Doorsteps, we are committed to showing young people that the obstacles they have faced are not insurmountable. In the Bible we read ‘light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’

What this means is that there is always hope. No matter what has happened, no matter what you have experienced, no matter what society may have told you, there is hope for you. This is what our initiatives here at Doorsteps offer: the light of hope that shines in the darkness.


Top photo credit: Polly Robinson


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