At the end of last year as the tragic news emerged of the Indian medical student’s death, who was subjected to the most unimaginable torture when she and a male friend boarded a bus in Delhi, the supposed true scale of Indian’s mistreatment of women was laid bare for the world to see. Digesting statics such as ‘according to official figures, a women is raped in Delhi every 14 hours’ (BBC:2013) is not a statement that many would find easy to comprehend. As word spread, people started to voice their concerns, particularly young women, who took to the street to protest. However, ‘not a single leader came forward to engage with protesting students demanding safety for women.’ (BBC: 2013) The government may have made their stance clear now, ordering a rushed trial with no lawyers or legal representative for the men charged with the murder and rape. The Government also stating that if found guilty, the accused will all be publicly hanged. Considering the worldwide media interest in the case, this reaction seems typically frantic of a government that is desperate to end discussion and anxiety surrounding women’s rights and safety. In spite of this, one thing is now undeniably certain, India must address its’ deep rooted, often accepted approach to treating women as second class citizens, not only politically, but in the horrendous struggles they face in everyday life.
With extreme cases such as this one, as much as they make us feel saddened, uneasy and angry, for many there is a moment of comfort as we count our blessings that we do not live in Delhi, convincing ourselves that we live in much more civilised and safer society. Many would argue, or like to believe, that the reality is that young women in Britain do not face such dangers or abuse in everyday life. We have far more rights compared to those of our Indian counterparts, with many young women in India living in constant fear of being raped by someone they know. As well as having the ability and freedom to travel alone and board a bus safely in the capital; which to British young women is no doubt perceived as a right, not a luxury. However, the case of the Indian student is not worlds away from some young women’s own experiences of living in the UK today, and unfortunately it is much more relevant to them than it first appears.
‘In the past two years, there have been 176 reported multiple perpetrator rapes (involving three or more attackers) in London. (Cohen, 2009 cited in Greater London Authority, 2010:57) ‘A recent report on multiple perpetrator rape reveals that young women are the largest group of victims for this type of offence, and that the average age of victims has fallen over the last ten year…36% of victims were 15 year old or less in 2008/2009’ (MPA, 2009 in GLA, 2010: 38) This type of offence may not frequently appear in the British media, with countless unreported attacks taking place each year; but simply because such incidents do not happen aboard the night bus for all to see, does not mean our capital is a stranger to such violence. ‘Around three million women across the UK experience rape, domestic violence, forced marriage stalking, sexual exploitation and trafficking… or crimes in the name of ‘honour’ each year. (Coy et al: 2008, in GLA, 2010:13)
Due to the recent changes in government legislation, the age of domestic abuse victims will be lowered from eighteen year olds to sixteen years old. This therefore means previously the government could only class those over the age of eighteen as being victims of domestic abuse. ‘A change to the official definition of domestic violence used across government will aim to increase awareness that young people in this age-group do experience domestic violence and abuse.’ (Home Office: 2012)
This change in policy is an incredible step forward, bringing the larger issues of domestic violence and young women to the forefront and encouraging discussion, however the issue will still remain complex. The stark reality for many young women is that they will continue to be at serious risk of harm and sexual violence. Vulnerable young women will continue to face difficulty when trying to access appropriate services, in a sector that continues to face astronomical cuts. And for many, receiving support will not be a realistic or safe option; particularly in relation to young women who associate with gangs. ‘Rape and sexual assault, by individual gang members and by the whole group, is relatively common.’ (Centre for Social Justice, 2009 in in GLA, 2010: 31)
‘A girl who has been targeted by a rival gang of her boyfriend’s will be at risk both from the gang who raped her, as well as the gang to who she is associated as both will have an interest in her not reporting what has happened to her.’ (Race on the Agenda 2009 in GLA, 2010:58) This is interesting when considering that young men frequently rationalise their gang associations due to the immediate, desperate need for some kind of support network and most importantly the need for protection. Worryingly, this somewhat admirable offer of ultimate protection, self-sacrifice and limited safety is not extended to include young women who are in association with the group. Not only are young women at risk of serious sexual violence from the entire gang they associate with, but also increasingly, they are at risk of sexual violence and exploitation from rival gangs. ‘Operation Blunt have successfully taken thousands of knives off the streets; there is concern that the use of rape as a weapon will continue to increase.’ (ROTA, 2009 in GLA, 2010:60) This suggests because of the invasive, frequent nature of Stop and Search, it has actually become easier and more conspicuous for young men to commit reprisal attacks using sexual violence against young women, compared to running the risk of being caught carrying a knife in the capital. Therefore, ‘raping a sister or a girlfriend of rival gang members becomes a ‘safer’ weapon of choice’, (ROTA, 2009 in GLA, 2010:60) leaving behind less evidence, whilst still managing to convey a desired message or warning; with the majority of attacks remaining unreported, to any authority or support service.
This example is just one representation of how designing and implementing the youth violence strategy with only young men in mind has serious and wider implications for the physical, psychological and general mistreatment of many young women. Arguably, these young women at times are involved by complete default; uncontrollable contributing factors including: where they live, their gender or who their brothers and cousins associate with.
Operation Trident’s recent campaign targeted young women who hold weapons for their partners, brothers and other male associates. Detective Chief Superintendent Helen Ball explains ‘if found guilty of gun possession, they (young women) will face a prison sentence, regardless of their sex. This campaign drives home the simple message that those who store weapons for others are committing a crime, as well as helping others to commit theirs.’ (London Councils, 2011:10) This represents the complete lack of understanding for the immediate threat of danger that surrounds young women who are connected or associate with gangs. It is difficult to understand why exactly Operation Trident wants to convey such a message to those young women who have been exposed and subjected to serious sexual violence on numerous occasions; young women who live in constant fear of reprisal attacks from not only direct gang associates but multiple rival gangs too. Furthermore, this approach suggests these young women are in a position of choice, which to an extent may be true. However, this depends on whether choosing between being sexually and physically assaulted or holding a weapon for someone who is threatening you, can be realistically considered a choice. By telling damaged, vulnerable and petrified young women that if they hold a weapon for someone, they will face the consequences and go to prison, the message actually fractures their ability further to approach services for help. In addition to encouraging them to believe they have absolutely no rights and they are under no circumstances classed as victims. ‘Girls struggle to identify services that are independent of the state and have little or no confidence in claims of confidentiality by any service.’ (London Councils, 2011:9)
The Peabody Staying Safe Campaign – www.oiimysize.com
It is easy to dismiss exploitation and violence against young women as only affecting a small section of our society but ‘sexual exploitation of girls is a universal problem and not just an issue that affects girls involved in gangs or living in gang-affected neighbourhoods.’ (ROTA, 2009 in GLA, 2010:32) A group of young women from South West London have created a campaign Oii My Size, surrounding issues of sexual exploitation, sexting and gender interaction, particularly focusing on how boys spoke to them through social networking sites and on the street. The girls explained they felt discriminated, intimidated and at times exploited because of the simple fact that they are young women; citing particular scenarios that have become accepted among their peers. For example if a girl rejects a boy’s advances to take her number, refusing to speak to him or rejects his offer of sex, the most common impulsive reaction is to then insult or humiliate the girl, either to her face or online. The campaign, supported by Peabody and funded by the Big Lottery, aims to educate boys about the negative language they use towards young women. As well as informing young people about the dangers of sharing sexual images of themselves and other young people due to the fact that sending images of anyone under the age of sixteen is classed as the distribution of child pornography.
Because of the interest from young people across London in the Oii My Size website, the girls are now aiming to use the site as a tool to educate and encourage young people to think about more serious issues. The girls have worked with Peabody’s Community Safety team learning about domestic abuse and violence, sexual exploitation and consent. Worryingly, recent research discovered many young people believe ‘being forced to give oral sex was not [seen as] rape.’ (London Councils, 2011:15) The Oii My Size girls want to use their website to convey to as many young women as possible, that actually these situations are a similar experience for girls across the country, and it is only something young women have to tolerate. As young people navigate growing up in an increasingly complex, interwoven, technology-obsessed society, this youth-led campaign is addressing common issues that young people continue to experience, which they are given minimal support and guidance on. Young people are expressing that they desperately need more help and support in order to deal with these issues; issues that many teachers, parents and politicians have minimal knowledge of.
In conclusion, like many complex issues, the solution does not lie solely in one place. If we are to address violence and sexual exploitation against young women in Britain, there has to be a genuine change of culture. From the portrayal of young women in advertising and music videos, to the incredibly poor or non-existent sex education on our curriculum; because young women are constantly fed confusing messages about equality, sex and consent. By educating both young men and young women, we should encourage those who have for so long been allowed and conveniently encouraged to remain voiceless, to speak. Supporting and inspiring them to have the confidence to express what makes them feel uncomfortable, pressured and in many cases, completely violated. We must encourage young women to finally put their own needs first and have the conviction to stand up for themselves, and where this is not a realistic possibility, for support services to be easily accessible, reliable, safe and consistent. ‘London’s only Rape Crisis Centre is based in Croydon, south London, and during the last six years two other centres have shut.’ (GLA, 2010: 20)
Violence and sexual exploitation of young women may not be widely reported, or a social issues that is particularly visible. This is because it happens behind closed doors, to young people who have often fallen so far off the radar that accessing support seems impossible, without numerous and serious consequences. So before we completely detach ourselves from Delhi, or decide that we have made enough significant progress in this area, we should remember the fact that violence and sexual exploitation still continues to seep into communities, destroying identities and many young people’s lives. Britain should not be a place where young women live in fear of something they are continually told is not an issue here; or that there is no funding or support to help those most vulnerable and most effected. At the very least, the most beneficial step forward would be to simply accept we are not doing enough and there is still so much more we need to achieve if ending violence against young women is to be achievable in our supposedly safe and progressive society.
BBC News. 2013. India gang rape: Thousands of women march in Delhi. [online] Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-20886253
Greater London Authority. 2010. The Way Forward – Taking acting to end violence against women and girls. [online] Available from: http://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/The%20Way%20Forward%20Final%20Strategy.pdf
Home Office. 2012. New definition of domestic violence. [online] Available from: http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/media-centre/news/domestic-violence-definition
London Councils. 2011. Good Practice Briefing Young women and Violence. [online] Available from: http://www.wrc.org.uk/includes/documents/cm_docs/2011/y/ywv_gpb_final.pdf
Oiimysize Campaign. 2012. Oiimysize [online] available from: www.oiimysize.com
For more information about the Oii My Size Campaign please contact Lajaune.Lincoln@peabody.org.uk