UK: Abuse of Asian girls missed because of focus on white victims, says report


Asian girls are the hidden victims of child grooming gangs, dipping under the radar of police or social services, according to a report released on Tuesday. Vulnerable girls and some boys are being sexually exploited by gangs of men but are being missed by the authorities because agencies are too focused on a model of grooming involving white victims, according to research from the Muslim Women's Network UK.

The report, Unheard Voices: the sexual exploitation of Asian girls and young women, suggests that Asian girls, including Muslims, are under-reporting abuse to police and authorities because they fear not being believed, or because they are threatened with bringing shame and dishonour on their families.

"I knew we would uncover cases, but I was shocked at the numbers coming forward and the horrific nature of the crimes," said Shaista Gohir, chair of the network, based in Birmingham. "What we discovered is that these sexual predators will target any girls who are vulnerable and accessible, regardless of their background, ethnicity or faith."

Over a five-month period researchers gathered evidence mainly from professionals working in in charitable organisations but also spoke to social services, police, youth work, health care, education, justice and voluntary organisations. They uncovered 35 cases where young Asians said they had been victims of abuse. The majority said they had been abused by men of the same background. For example, Afghan girls were more likely to be abused by Afghan men. "It's a worrying figure," said Gohir. "This was a small-scale, unfunded study. If we managed to collect so many case studies in a short space of time, what is the reality? It is likely to be far worse."

The majority of the girls were unwilling to speak to the authorities, and none would bring charges against their abusers, said Gohir. "Blackmail was a key factor in these girls complying and not speaking out, and the shame and honour card was used time and time again," she said.

Girls were also worried about the consequences of speaking out or being forced into a marriage. In one case, a girl named in the report as Parveen said she was groomed by her stepfather's brother and his friend from the age of 12. When she developed sexual health problems at 14, her parents forced her to undergo hymen repair surgery and forced her into a marriage. She ran away and now lives separately from them.

The majority of child-sex offenders in Britain are white men, but recent cases in Rotherham, Derby and Oxford featured groups of Asian men grooming vulnerable white girls. According to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, in 2012 97% of identified victims were white, but the centre recognised victims were likely to be reluctant to report abuse. A spokesman said: "Stereotyping victims or offenders is inaccurate and creates unnecessary risks – this report illustrates this point clearly."

Recent reports have suggested that Sikh girls have also been targeted by mainly Muslim gangs, but Saidah Sultana, a Muslim convert who works with vulnerable girls in Birmingham, said common misconceptions about Asian girls put them more at risk. "Muslim girls aren't untouchable: people have a perception that all young Muslim girls are locked up at home," she said. "Young Muslim girls are like anyone else: if they want to go out, they can find a way out."

Sue Berelowitz, the deputy children's commissioner, said the report echoed the commissions fears that victims who did not fit the most recognised model were being missed. "One of these myths was that only white girls are victims of sexual exploitation by Asian or Muslim males as these men only abuse outside of their own community, driven by hatred and contempt for white females. This belief flies in the face of evidence that shows those who violate children are most likely to target those who are closest to them and most easily accessible," she said. She added that the children's commissioner inquiry into gangs "uncovered many ethnic minority victims and we became extremely concerned by the failure of agencies to seek out and identify these children".

The cases detailed in the 126-page report included females aged from nine to 30. They came from London, the West Midlands, Yorkshire and Lancashire. They followed patterns seen in other high-profile cases, where vulnerable girls are groomed by younger boys or older "boyfriends" who then introduced them to other men. One third of victims had suffered child sexual abuse, often familial abuse.

A close family member of one 12-year-old girl featured in the report told the Guardian that the child was groomed by boys her own age in school, before being introduced to men in flashy cars. At the age of 14, she was found in a the locked attic room of one of her abusers. Older family members in the house said her abuser was "looking after her" because she had problems at home. "She was filthy, with burns and scars all over her body – it was horrific," said the woman, who did not want to be named. She reported the abuse to police but was told they could not help because the girl would not report her abusers. She was seen not as a victim but as a "temptress" by some family members and others in the community. "She was seen as a dirty girl who had been sleeping with men - but she was just 14, she was a victim," she said.

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the minister for faith and communities, said authorities had to be aware that child abuse came in many forms. "Certain types of abuse – under-reported, misunderstood – may be overlooked by the authorities," she said. "The case studies collected together in this report are finally shining much needed spotlight on a problem that has largely, and tragically, gone unnoticed in the past."

Nazir Afzal, head of the Crown Prosecution Service for the north-west, said group-grooming cases suggested most victims of child groomers were white, but added that "women and victims from minorities are even more reluctant to report these crimes, in part because of honour and shame issues".

The network's report was important because it highlighted that "it is the availability of victims, coupled with their vulnerability, that leads to them being targeted by these predators. Vulnerability is universal and not confined to particular races," he said.

The report also suggests that some abusers pressure their victims to tell the authorities they are at risk of forced marriage, to remove them from the family home. Salma, a young woman of Pakistani heritage in her 20s from a Northern town, told the Guardian that her sister has been targeted from the age of 20. When her family went to the police, they were dismissed When her sister wanted to leave the family home, she was helped by police. "They said we were going to put her into a forced marriage, but we were modern girls," she said.

Her sister started a relationship with a Pakistani young man at university, before her behaviour became erratic and she began to be picked up regularly by his other family members. "She would come back with bruises on her collar bone and say she couldn't remember where she had been or she didn't want to talk about it – in the toilet there would be blood discharge. When I heard about the Rochdale cases, it fell into place," she said.

The family, which was without a father figure, was unable to prevent her leaving. "She was at their beck and call. If you tried to stop her, she would fight with you."

Salma has not seen her sister for nearly two years. "I don't know what has happened to her, I don't even know if she is alive. I have lost my sister," she said. "People have to know that anyone can do this, and anyone can be a victim. [The abusers] find a weakness and they exploit it," she said. The network's researchers found that the promise of marriages, or false "Islamic marriages", was sometimes used as a controlling tool.

"In other cases, girls might be wanting to escape strict or controlling families, and when an older boy has said he wants to marry a girl, it is seen as a form of escape," said Gohir. During interviews for the report – the researchers did not speak to victims directly, but accessed their stories through third parties, and interviewed 73 people close to the victims – Gohir spoke directly to a number of young men who said secretnikahs [wedding ceremonies] were used to trap girls to ensure the "link" was not broken. So-called wives were then shared between a group, said one man.

Gohir said as a member of the Muslim community, it had not been an easy decision to release the report. "We took a decision that the safety and wellbeing of these victims and potential future victims was far more important than the so-called honour of the community," she said. "There are a minority of deviant people who are commit such abhorrent crimes in every community. This research in no way suggests that all Muslim men are rapists or paedophiles. Indeed, the overwhelming majority condemn such behaviour, and Muslim men have helped and supported this research."

Some names have been changed.

Imrana's story: 'I have no idea how many times was raped'

Imrana has been quiet for a long time. Now in her 50s and a mother of three, she says she has tried to put the childhood abuse she suffered behind her and carry on with life. But now, decades after being abused for years , including being raped by a gang, she has decided to speak anonymously to the Guardian so that other victims might come forward.

Her abuse started when she was five. Her mother's cousin, who was living in the family house, would bribe her with sweets before raping her. "How many times it happened I have no idea, but it was frequent. The memories are all there," she says.

"I have memories of going to nursery school with no underpants on after he attacked me."The man's brother also started to abuse her, Imrana says. Around the age of seven, she remembers being taken to a wood were she was repeatedly raped by a group of around six to eight men, younger than her previous abusers.

"I just took their hand and went with them," she says. "The sexual abuse was part of my life. I have the memories still. If I go into the woods or the park, they come back. Sometimes it's uncomfortable, if I'm with my children – I sometimes don't understand why I'm feeling a particular way and then I will remember."

The abuse finally stopped when Imrana's mother caught her cousin abusing her daughter. "One day he'd finished having sex with me in a store room. Mum was calling for me. He put me in a sack and was doing his belt up and mum opened the door. She basically caught him in the act," she says. She remembers him walking to the bus stop to leave. "My relationship with my mother, for the next 23 years, was very strained. The belief in the family was that I had as a child had done something to lead him on."Imrana told anyno one about the abuse she suffered, but after recent cases came to light she decided it was time to speak out, although she wants to conceal her identity to protect herself and her family.

"These two men abused me and then introduced me to another group. That's child abuse, but there is also a link to gangs," she says. "I felt it was important [to speak out] because I've come across other cases of women sexually abused in the family and then abused by total strangers. For me, this happened more than 45 years ago and I know that it is still happening in our communities, but no one is talking about it and services are not picking it up. I just felt it was important to highlight it."

Imrana also wanted to highlight that abuse does not happen to only one type of girl or only in cities.