London, UK - Police and leading figures in the battle against child abuse have welcomed the findings of a report highlighting the sexual exploitation of girls in Britain's Asian and Muslim communities.
A broad consensus on the need for greater awareness is emerging in the wake of a shocking study by a Muslim women's organisation, reported by Al Jazeera last week that highlighted the threat posed by sexual predators to Asian children.
A week of activities to highlight the issue of sexual exploitation was launched yesterday on September 30, in Bradford, a northern British city with a high Muslim population, where local agencies have pioneered innovative approaches to confronting this issue among minorities.
Unheard Voices: The Sexual Exploitation of Asian Girls and Young Women, published in September by the Muslim Women's Network UK (MWNUK), has been praised by Muslim leaders for its candour.
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Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, an imam from Leicester and Assistant Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain, said: "We welcome the findings of this report, but particularly the recommendations within it, which we believe provide vital tools in the quest to eliminate and eradicate this heinous crime from all our communities."
Unheard Voices challenged a myth commonly repeated in the British media suggesting that child sexual exploitation is mainly a racial crime in which Asian men target white girls. Britain's Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), a national police body, says child sexual exploitation spans "all cultures and ethnicities" - but acknowledges that cultural factors may help to explain why research to date suggests most victims are white.
The Muslim Women's Network report has united frontline agencies and community leaders in their determination to raise awareness of the issue in minority communities - and to tackle a crime that has risen rapidly up the political agenda in the UK.
Police forces across the UK have dramatically raised the importance they have given to child sexual exploitation in recent years. Greater Manchester Police has made it a top policing priority, and recent awareness initiatives have been launched by police in the northern counties of Durham, Lancashire and West Yorkshire.
Police in West Yorkshire, which has high Asian and Muslim populations, unveiled a hard-hitting video on September 29 featuring parents whose children have been victims of child sexual exploitation as part of its on-going "Know the Signs" campaign.
Detective Chief Inspector Susan Jenkinson, the force's head of safeguarding, said that officers trying to combat child sexual exploitation did not approach this as an ethnic minority issue - yet were fully aware of the special problems faced by Asian and Muslim children.
DCI Jenkinson said: "For me it's not a minority issue: there are people committing horrendous crimes against children, and it's the children that the police, social care and all the partner agencies and third-sector workers want to protect.
"I don't want it to become a race or minority issue: it's something that we should all be looking at together to try and prevent it happening and get the people who are committing these offences to justice."
The approach taken by West Yorkshire Police reflects a practice now gaining ground in this area that stresses multi-agency partnerships where officers work with a host of other bodies in local safeguarding units to identify and tackle the crime.
In areas such as Bradford, this enables community leaders to help in ways that take account of cultural factors.
Awareness is seen as key to reducing the risk of child sexual exploitation in minority communities, and groups such as Parents Against Child Sexual Exploitation (PACE) work alongside parents and carers of children at risk.
The organisation has worked with Muslim and Sikh families where children have been victims, and some of the parents it has helped teamed up with West Yorkshire Police in its video.
People are beginning to acknowledge that the problem of child sexual exploitation is much bigger than anyone ever was willing to acknowledge.
Fleur Strong, deputy chief executive of PACE, said: "We are aware of children within those communities who are being sexually exploited and also acutely aware of the added difficulties and sometimes social restraints that these families are experiencing. We have families that have been targeted who are in the British Muslim communities - and we know the difficulties they face."
Strong acknowledged that although her organisation has been campaigning for years, frontline public services have only recently begun to consider this a priority.
"In terms of police awareness, social services awareness, local government awareness, there is without doubt a catch-up game going on where people are beginning to acknowledge that the problem of child sexual exploitation is much bigger than anyone ever was willing to acknowledge."
She praised to the innovative approach taken by the Bradford Safeguarding Children Board (BSCB), the local agency responsible for child protection issues, whose strategy includes working with the mothers of potential victims of exploitation - but also potential perpetrators.
The BSCB's seven-point plan for addressing child sexual exploitation aims, among other things, to ensure that perpetrators receive treatment programmes to minimise their chances of re-offending.
The BSCB has been at the forefront of national efforts to raise awareness in the Muslim community about child sexual exploitation, and has led pioneering research based on consultations undertaken by the local council of mosques, Masajid and Madaaris representatives, imams, faith teachers and parents. It provides schools with a "toolkit" offering guidance on how to set up a child protection system.
Religious bodies are also assuming a leading role in addressing the need to raise awareness about crimes of sexual exploitation and grooming within Asian and Muslim communities.
The Islamic Society of Britain was among the bodies that founded the Community Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE) to develop a proactive response to the problem of on-street grooming by raising awareness.
In June, imams delivered a sermon in 500 mosques across Britain simultaneously denouncing the practice of grooming that had been written by Alyas Karmani, an imam from West Yorkshire.
Shaykh Mogra said: "I think all of us have woken up to the tragic reality on the ground which we did not fathom before this, where the exploitation of non-white girls, Asian girls, has been highlighted."
He believes that the very nature of this crime unites all Britain's communities - and makes partnerships a key to the solution.
"Tackling this is an effort that has to be undertaken by all communities and by state institutions: it is not something that one single community can do on its own."