Let us have a proper discussion about child sexual abuse

Turning the fight against this devastating crime into a matter of colour and ethnicity could allow predators to avoid detection.

Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman at a meeting in Rochdale, UK
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Home Secretary Suella Braverman attend a meeting with the local community and police leaders following the announcement of a new police task force to help officers tackle grooming gangs, in Rochdale, Britain April 3, 2023 [Reuters/Phil Nobel/Pool]

Last month, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak received some criticism – and from some quarters, praise – for suggesting victims of “grooming gangs” have been ignored because of “political correctness” and “cultural sensitivities”.

“For too long, political correctness has stopped us from weeding out vile criminals who prey on children and young women,” he said, referring to the widely publicised claim that in the United Kingdom, gangs of predominantly British Pakistani men are sexually abusing young white girls and getting away with it due to the “cultural sensitivities” of those responsible for reporting any suspicion or allegation of abuse to relevant authorities. “We will stop at nothing to stamp out these dangerous gangs,” the Prime Minister added.

Before adding my voice to this conversation, it is extremely important for me to note that I have no interest in making a political football out of childhood sexual abuse or using seemingly well-meaning efforts to end it to attack the government. But as someone from a minority community who was sexually abused as a child, and as the ethnic minority ambassador to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) aimed at eliminating any institutional failures in the fight against a devastating crime, I feel that it is my responsibility to point out the many problems and dangers that could arise from turning this important issue into a matter of colour and ethnicity.

The framing of childhood sexual abuse as a crime committed overwhelmingly by gangs of brown men against young white girls is destructive, distracting, and irresponsible, but most importantly, it is not based on evidence.

IICSA, which published its final report in October 2022, found that a lack of data made it impossible to say if certain ethnic groups are disproportionately likely to be perpetrators or victims, and that “it is unclear whether a misplaced sense of political correctness or the sheer complexity of the problem, have inhibited good-quality data collection”.

The data we do have, meanwhile, suggests abuse by grooming gangs accounts for less than 3 percent of all child sexual abuse cases in England and Wales, and those with South Asian perpetrators make up a much smaller subset of that. According to the data available to us, the majority of the grooming gangs in this country – in line with what you would expect from a majority white population – are made up of white males below the age of 30.

Child sexual abuse is horrendously common and not specific to any community or culture. Recent estimates suggest that more than one in seven girls and one in 20 boys, which equates to half a million children, are being sexually abused in the UK each year. Such abuse happens across all segments of society, and in many varied contexts, most commonly within the home and institutions.

Focusing the discourse on child sexual abuse, and consequently, any efforts to tackle it, on “South Asian grooming gangs”, causes harm not only to the stereotyped communities but also victims and survivors everywhere.

Creating the impression that in the UK child sexual abuse is a crime committed predominantly by men of Pakistani heritage against white girls discounts the experiences of victims from ethnic minority communities, as well as those of male children from all races. Furthermore, these preconceived ideas about how abuse happens create space for perpetrators from other ethnicities – who make up the majority – to continue their crimes against children for longer without facing suspicion or scrutiny. These divisive stereotypes can lead to professionals not taking child protection concerns that do not fit the current narrative seriously.

We know that all children find it hard to disclose abuse happening to them. We also know that for boys and some ethnic minority children, the barriers to disclosure can be especially steep. For example, IICSA heard how almost all communities in the UK expect and encourage boys to be strong and masculine, making it more difficult for them than their female counterparts to disclose their experiences of sexual abuse. Specific cultural norms were also found to introduce extra barriers to disclosure for victims of all genders from different ethnic minority communities.

While it is highly counterproductive to single out a community as likely perpetrators, it could be extremely helpful to come up with specific strategies to enable victims from specific ethnic, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds to disclose abuse and access justice.

Child sexual abuse is not a problem specific to a single demographic group. And no community in our diverse nation wants this crime to continue with impunity. We need to find new, more effective ways to protect and help all our children no matter their race, culture or religion.

Citing “political correctness” as a barrier to effective responses to child sexual abuse is nothing but an effort to excuse harmful inaction.

In its final report based on extensive research, detailed investigations and engagement with victims and survivors, IICSA provided the government with a total of 20 recommendations “to better protect children”. One of these recommendations is for the introduction of a statutory requirement of mandatory reporting. This recommendation has been accepted by the government, which is a step in the right direction. In effect, mandatory reporting would require individuals in certain employments (paid or voluntary) and professions to report allegations of child sexual abuse to the relevant authorities. Failure to do so in some circumstances would lead to criminal charges. If implemented properly, the mandatory reporting requirement would eliminate any possible concerns about “political correctness” being a barrier to catching abusers.

Careful implementation of all 20 recommendations from IICSA would enable our society to respond to child sexual abuse with force and in unison. Rather than cherry-picking issues and narratives that help divert attention from continued failures to protect children, everyone with an interest in child protection should focus on following the roadmap provided by IICSA and implementing all its recommendations.

After the inquiry closed, a range of charities and survivor organisations found the NSPCC IICSA Changemakers – a group aimed at inspiring a national movement to prevent child sexual abuse by asking the government to implement all 20 recommendations made by the inquiry. I am a member of this group and am committed to continuing to engage with the government to ensure we achieve real progress.

We need to tackle child sexual abuse and we need to do it now. But pulling this important issue into the culture wars of the day is not the way to achieve this. Scapegoating one community without meaningful evidence, only because it fits a certain narrative, would only make us lose sight of the bigger picture and allow predators to avoid detection.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.