Earlier this month, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak drew some criticism – as well as praise from some quarters – for suggesting that victims of “grooming gangs” were ignored due to “political correctness” and “cultural sensitivities”.
“For too long political correctness has prevented us from rooting out vicious criminals who prey on children and young women,” he said, referring to the widespread allegation that in the UK gangs of predominantly British-Pakistani men are sexually assaulting young white youths. girls and getting away with it because of the “cultural sensitivities” of those responsible for reporting suspected or allegations of abuse to the relevant authorities. “We will do everything we can to eradicate 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 child sexual abuse or making seemingly well-intentioned efforts to end it in order to to attack the government. But as a member of a minority community who was sexually abused as a child, and as an ethnic minority ambassador to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), aimed at eliminating institutional failures in the fight against a devastating crime, I feel it is my responsibility to point out the many problems and dangers that can arise from turning this important issue into one of skin color and ethnicity.
It is destructive, distracting and irresponsible to view childhood sexual abuse as a crime predominantly perpetrated by gangs of brown men against young white girls, 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 whether particular 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 hindered quality data collection”.
The data we do have, meanwhile, suggests that grooming gang abuse accounts for less than 3 per cent of all child sexual abuse cases in England and Wales, and those with South Asian offenders are a much smaller subset of that. According to the data available to us, the majority of grooming gangs in this country — consistent with what you would expect from a predominantly white population — are white men under the age of 30.
Child sexual abuse is extremely common and not specific to any community or culture. According to recent estimates, more than one in seven girls and one in 20 boys, representing half a million children, are sexually assaulted each year in the UK. Such abuse occurs in all segments of society and in many different contexts, most commonly at home and in institutions.
Focusing the discourse on child sexual abuse, and consequently all efforts to address it, on “South Asian grooming gangs” harms not only stereotyped communities, but also victims and survivors everywhere.
Creating the impression that in the UK child sexual abuse is a crime committed primarily by men of Pakistani descent against white girls undermines the experiences of victims from ethnic minority communities, as well as those of male children of all races. In addition, these preconceived ideas about how abuse occurs create space for perpetrators of other ethnicities – who make up the majority – to continue their crimes against children for longer without suspicion or scrutiny. These divisive stereotypes can prevent professionals from taking child protection concerns seriously that don’t fit the current narrative.
We know that all children find it difficult to disclose abuse that has happened to them. We also know that for boys and some children from ethnic minorities, the barriers to disclosure can be particularly high. For example, IICSA heard how almost all communities in the UK expect and encourage boys to be strong and masculine, making it harder for them than their female counterparts to publicize their experiences of sexual abuse. Specific cultural norms were also found to create additional barriers to disclosure for victims of all genders from different ethnic minority communities.
While it is extremely counterproductive to designate a community as likely perpetrators, it can be extremely helpful to devise specific strategies to enable victims of specific ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds to disclose abuse and access the right.
Child sexual abuse is not a problem specific to any one demographic group. And no community in our diverse country wants this crime to continue with impunity. We need to find new, more effective ways to protect and help all of our children, regardless of their race, culture or religion.
Citing “political correctness” as a barrier to effective responses to child sexual abuse is nothing but an attempt to excuse harmful passivity.
In its final report, based on extensive research, detailed research and engagement with victims and survivors, IICSA gave the government a total of 20 recommendations “to better protect children”. One of these recommendations concerns the introduction of a statutory duty to report. This recommendation has been adopted by the government, which is a step in the right direction. In effect, mandatory reporting would require individuals in certain (paid or voluntary) jobs and occupations to report allegations of child sexual abuse to the relevant authorities. Failure to do so in some circumstances may result in criminal prosecution. If implemented properly, the mandatory reporting requirement would allay any potential concerns that “political correctness” is a barrier to catching abusers.
Careful implementation of all 20 recommendations of IICSA would enable our society to respond strongly and unitedly to child sexual abuse. Rather than throwing out issues and stories that divert attention from continued failures to protect children, anyone interested in child protection should focus on following IICSA’s roadmap and implementing all of its recommendations.
After the investigation concluded, a series of charities and survivor organizations formed the NSPCC IICSA Changemakers – a group that aimed to inspire a national movement to prevent child sexual abuse by asking the government to implement all 20 of the research’s recommendations . I am a member of this group and am committed to continuing the dialogue with the government to ensure we make real progress.
We need to tackle child sexual abuse and do it now. But involving this important subject in the current culture wars is not the way to achieve this. Scapegoating one community without meaningful evidence just because it fits a particular narrative would only make us lose sight of the bigger picture and allow predators to avoid detection.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.