Carlene Firmin, 29, who has been shortlisted in the Women's Warrior category in tonight's Cosmopolitan Ultimate Women of the Year Awards 2013, told the Evening Standard how young girls become victims of extreme sexual bullying when they start secondary school and then made to feel that in order to fit in, they must comply with the culture.
She said: "We have a child protection system that is designed to look at risk in the home and assess a child there.
"But in the files I've looked at, the primary risk - in terms of sexual abuse, physical assault and risk of offending - comes from their peer group."
For her research, the Metropolitan Police and the Crown Prosecution Service have given Carlene access to their files on violent cases among the young. She also spoke to victims first hand.
The most harrowing tale she recalled came from a 20-year-old who she met in a refuge. The young woman, who can no longer have children due to her injuries, had two relationships with gang members as a teenager.
They broke her legs and collar bone, beat and cut her with knives. They both raped and filmed her in front of their friends, and she was even 'sold' to clear a drugs debt. The young woman thought her gang association would mean she wouldn't be taken seriously.
Carlene, a senior research fellow at the University of Bedfordshire, said: "She thought she'd brought it on herself because she gained something from the relationships: her ex was giving her coke... She couldn't acknowledge she was a 'worthy' victim."
Carlene interviewed around 800 young men and women from 2005 to 2008 nationwide. Her report eventually earned £1.2 million of government funding towards services that protect and work with young people at risk of gang-related and sexual violence.
There are now 13 new posts around the country, largely thanks to Carlene's work.
She launched the MsUnderstood Partnership in August to address gender inequality among the young, and last week advised the Office of the Children's Commissioner after launching the highly-publicised national inquiry into sexual exploitation of girls by gangs.
She said: "At the moment it's just me working with an intern and an advisory panel who assist. We want to secure more funding and hire three young women in the New Year.
"I'm lucky that we've seen significant changes in government policy. Securing change is what spurs me on, but so much more work needs doing...
"There's only so much MsUnderstood can do. We need to not be needed, and for the work to be delivered without me there. I want a national strategy to tackle the issue."
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