The true extent of child sex exploitation in British Asian communities has been underestimated because of taboos about discussing the subject and reporting abuse, campaigners have warned following the publication of a shocking report exposing how hundreds of girls were systematically raped in the town of Rotherham.
The investigation estimated that at least 1,400 children, typically “young white girls”, were groomed and sexually exploited between 1997 and 2013 by “large numbers of male perpetrators” mostly from Rotherham’s small Pakistani-heritage community.
But the report by Alexis Jay, a former chief inspector of social work in Scotland, also raised issues about under-reporting within British Asian communities, citing concerns that abuse affecting ethnic minorities was often “hidden from sight”.
Shaista Gomir, chair of the Muslim Women’s Network UK and author of another report into child sex exploitation, told Al Jazeera that many British Asian victims were still falling through the net because traditional notions of shame and honour made them less likely to come forward.
“This is being played up as a racial crime, that it is Asian men on white girls, but there are girls from their own community also involved. That shows very clearly that they don’t differentiate and they will try and get their hands on any girl they can,” said Gomir.
“These girls have specific vulnerabilities because there is still a tendency to hold girls responsible for the honour of the family. The number of Asian girls involved could well be a lot higher but they will not be reporting it because they don’t want to bring dishonour on their families.”
Jay’s report criticised local officials, politicians and police for a “blatant” collective failure of leadership, and said they had suppressed and ignored three earlier internal reports that should have set alarm bells ringing long before the convictions on child sex offences of five local Asian men in 2010 brought the town into the media spotlight.
It also found officials had sought to play down the ethnicity of perpetrators because of concerns of being accused of racism, with some local councillors seemingly unwilling to address the issue because they feared it would damage community cohesion and “give oxygen” to far-right groups.
“Councillors did not engage directly with the Pakistani-heritage community to discuss how best they could jointly address the issue,” the report said.
“Some councillors seemed to think it was a one-off problem, which they hoped would go away. Several staff described their nervousness about identifying the ethnic origins of perpetrators for fear of being thought racist; others remembered clear direction from their managers not to do so… This was at best naive, and at worst ignoring a politically inconvenient truth.”
A failure to act
Muhbeen Hussain, a local political activist and founder of a group called British Muslim Youth, said it was unacceptable that officials and political leaders appeared to be using political correctness and community relations as an excuse for their failure to take action.
“We accept that there were a large number of Pakistani men involved. The Rotherham Muslim community did not know what was going on, I can assure you, and it is a shock to all of us,” Hussain told Al Jazeera. “But the police knew, the social services knew and the council knew and they failed to react and that is what is so disgusting and devastating.”
Hussain said the Muslim community needed to do more to break down barriers to talking about sexual issues through education programmes and greater awareness of the dangers that young people faced.
“The fact is that, in the Pakistani Muslim community, sexualisation in general is a taboo subject. So you have something that is undercover because it is taboo, and then when you have someone acting in a criminal manner it is even more undercover.”
Gohir said British Asian girls were also at risk because men from within their own communities were able to manipulate cultural norms to prevent them from reporting abuse, and called for more research into why men of Pakistani heritage kept cropping up in child sex cases.
“Our report indicates that where Asian men can get hold of Asian girls they will probably prefer Asian girls because they are deemed lower risk and less likely to report. Predators know these girls are really, really vulnerable because of honour and shame issues. They will rape them and photograph and film it and then blackmail them.”
She believes the Rotherham report has highlighted issues affecting communities all over the UK and said that searching questions needed to be asked of every local authority and police force in the country.
Sheila Taylor, chief executive of the NWG Network, a charity working to tackle child sex exploitation, agrees, describing levels of abuse in the UK as “endemic”. She said that more resources needed to be invested in giving victims lifetime-long support to help them recover from their experiences.
“We are whipping Rotherham, but I could name you other areas where the situation is worse and they are doing nothing,” Taylor told Al Jazeera.
But she fears the focus on Rotherham, and other well publicised cases of exploitation involving Asian men and white girls, may distract attention from other groups at risk and allow perpetrators preying on less visible victims to escape detection.
She cites a case in the central UK town of Derby in 2012 in which the convictions of a group of mostly white middle-aged British men attracted little media attention, and a new report by the children’s charity Barnado’s which found that one in three sexually exploited young people were male.
“We are perpetuating one model because every time there is a court case [involving Asian men] there is media scrutiny and there is an inquiry. So if you are looking for sexual exploitation you look for Pakistani males and white girls, and when you look for something you find it. But, all the time we are focusing on Pakistani males, we are allowing somebody else to get on with it.”
In Rotherham, Hussain called on local Muslims to join him in demanding that every case of abuse dating back to 1997 should be reinvestigated and perpetrators prosecuted.
“Our community believes in the rule of law, and our community believes that criminals should be brought to justice. But we need to speak up because our community has been labelled,” he said.
“We need a collective initiative saying we want prosecutions, because if that doesn’t happen a lot of people are saying relations will never be the same, or will take generations to mend.”
This story was originally published on Al Jazeera on 29 August 2014.