London, UK - Farhah was just 12 when her older boyfriend raped her, took compromising photographs of his victim - then began blackmailing her into having sex with his friends.
By the time she was 13, she was regularly being plied with drugs and alcohol so that scores of men could force themselves upon her, sometimes for money.
This case of sexual exploitation of a child would be shocking enough in any society, but the fact that Farhah (not her real name) has a Pakistani background and these crimes took place in the UK heightens the impact of her story.
Her tale and stories of other girls litter the pages of a ground-breaking report that lifts the lid on a major taboo among minorities in the UK and exposes how authorities are failing one of the most vulnerable sectors of society: Asian and Muslim girls.
The authors believe they may have identified a problem that is far more prevalent.
Our report proves beyond doubt that they are being sexually exploited
They are now calling on the government to undertake more research into sexual exploitation by gangs and groups among minorities - and to ensure that a review of children’s services now underway does not overlook the special risks faced by girls in these communities.
“This report challenges the stereotype that child sexual exploitation is a racial crime in which Asian offenders target white girls only and Asian girls, Muslim girls, are not being sexually exploited,” said Shaista Gohir, the author of the report published by the Muslim Women’s Network UK (MWNUK).
“Our report proves beyond doubt that they are being sexually exploited.”
Unheard Voices: The Sexual Exploitation of Asian Girls and Young Women, recounts a litany of crimes by paedophiles against girls aged on average 13 to 14 - and punctures a potent myth that in recent years has steered British media reports and official responses advancing a narrative solely about organised groups of Asian male offenders preying on white females.
Sue Berelowitz, Britain’s Deputy Children’s Commissioner, said the “extraordinarily courageous and important” MWNUK report confronted these myths head on.
She said: “The stories of some of the victims in this report are amongst the most shocking I have encountered, and never again should anybody doubt that Asian and Muslim children are not as at risk of sexual abuse and exploitation as other children.”
Unheard Voices indicates that Asian girls may, in fact, be even more vulnerable to exploitation by sexual predators because they are less likely to report abuse for complex cultural and social reasons.
Crimes against children have risen up the British political agenda in recent years and a major two-year inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Gangs and Groups was launched by the government in 2011 and is due to report in November.
Its interim report found that 2,409 children and young people were confirmed victims of child sexual exploitation in gangs or groups between August 2010 and October 2011. The inquiry said that between April 2010 and March 2011 16,500 children in England were at high risk.
The report examines organised sexual exploitation by gangs and groups in the UK’s Asian and Muslim, Hindu and Sikh communities - Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, Somali and Afghani - but also notes the involvement of white offenders.
Some of the victims include Imaan, abused from a young age by her father and then her Quran teacher; Aisha, sexually abused at six then later groomed for sex through the internet; Safa, raped by an uncle at the age of 14 then handed around his friends; Nazia, hooked on heroin by her boyfriend then prostituted by him; Hasina, who was was 10 when she was sexually abused by an older boy then lured into having sex with a network of youths; Parveen, who was 12 when her stepfather’s brother and his friend blackmailed her into having sex with them and their friends.
The report highlights occasional complicity among other women who turn a blind eye to this crime for fear of bringing shame and dishonour on the family.
Gohir said: “What was really astonishing was the number of people coming forward and telling us case studies of sexual abuse within the family - something that we were not looking at."
Victims and offenders
The report reveals that victims are usually preyed on by men of the same ethnic background, and girls are often first abused at home or by an older “boyfriend” and then by his peers.
In some cases, girls are specifically targeted - with boys being paid by older men to look out for vulnerable girls and then introduce them.
Gohir said: “One girl told us that taxi drivers will drive around outside school and look out for the pretty girls, see their route home, then call a younger brother or cousin in the same age group as the girl to then meet her en route and pretend it’s an accidental meeting and chat her up, get to know her and try and become her boyfriend. It is quite organised, it’s not random.”
Alcohol and drugs are also commonly employed by gangs to make sure a girl cannot remember being abused and hence report it.
The report offers various explanations for sexual exploitation but a prominent factor among minorities is blackmail, whereby offenders use the threat of shame and dishonour to control victims in communities that are also dismissive or disbelieving about child abuse.
People from minority communities are partcularly vulnerable.
These factors help to foster a climate of secrecy - and hence place authorities under considerable obligation to acknowledge that girls from minorities may be at heightened risk.
Dr Daud Abdullah, a former deputy secretary general of Muslim Council of Britain, said: “People from minority communities are partcularly vulnerable" partly because of cultural preferences and positions.
"When someone is subjected to it in any way they would be reluctant to report it and would not in any case know where to turn to for help," Abdulla said. "That greatly increases their vulnerability.”
Unheard Voices also exposes the double standards of many men involved in sexual exploitation: the report says that Farhah was passed around for sex during the month of Ramadan, and two Pakistani girls were forced into sex with men who, from their Islamic robes, appeared religious.
Gohir described a typical scenario from her case studies: “One lad of about 18 years old spoke to me openly and he said a lot of people know what’s going on, it’s not particularly secretive, it’s not underground, lots of people know.
“He told me some of the lads don’t like doing bad things on Friday because it’s the holy day, mosque day - and that really astounded me.”
The report highlights how cultural factors reinforce a broader failure by frontline agencies in the UK - including the police, social services, and schools - to support girls at risk.
Jon Brown, head of strategy on sexual abuse at the NSPCC, the UK’s main children’s charity, said: “It’s important to remember that sexual abusers target vulnerability because they know they are going to stand a better chance of perpetrating their crimes and getting away with them.
“Minority and ethnic communities don’t access mainstream services as readily or as easily as other communities, meaning that all these factors can compound the situation and make BME children vulnerable to child sexual abuse and exploitation.”
Gohir points out that police are often reluctant to intervene in cases where, although abuse may be suspected, a girl is fearful about going on the record to report a crime.
The Muslim Women’s Network is recommending that frontline agencies now develop plans to ensure they are identifying minority children at risk of sexual exploitation, and has called for the creation of specialist, culturally sensitive helplines for them to report abuse.
The NSPCC is currently trialling its own programme tailored to minorities, called “Protect and Respect”, aimed at victims of child sexual abuse and exploitation.
Nonetheless, Gohir believes that raising the awareness of communities, parents - and boys - will be the key to confronting this issue.
“Obviously you don’t want the boys to end up becoming paedophiles or sexual predators either, so no one is actually warning them about this,” she said
Breaking down the culture of secrecy that has allowed sexual predators to act with confidence because they know they may not be caught is essential.
“Only when we start to have more perpetrators and offenders locked up and the community actually criticising them and saying how bad it is will we start seeing a decline.”
Source: Al Jazeera