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It's Not Just India - We Must Act Now to Prevent Sexual Violence at Home

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'Waste chick', 'sket', and 'ting', are just three examples of insulting words used by young Londoners to describe girls. Just like mainstream English, there are no equally damaging words to describe boys in the same way, yet seemingly an inexhaustible range has been created to disparage women and girls.

Every day, we at the Safer London Foundation work with young people across the capital who are at risk of becoming involved in or are already victims of gang violence in one way or another. As we are all reeling from news of the horrific attack on a young student in India, it seems timely to re-emphasis domestic issues around sexual violence.

Our Empower programme focuses on supporting young women who have experienced or are at risk of sexual violence. This could be linked to their association with a gang or because they are targeted by groups of young people. It's often when talking to these vulnerable young women, that we hear the slang words , as they recount the labels they've been assigned by peers, both male and female.

Young women we work with have told us about experiences of gang rape at parties where, as victims, rumours were then spread about them and they were labelled using denigrating slang. Invariably they feel they are in some way to blame for the violence that had been inflicted upon them.

Unfortunately, their sense of culpability is not unusual, or even surprising. As a recent Channel 4 report highlighted again last week, Amnesty International figures show that up to a third of people in the UK think a woman who flirts is in part responsible for her rape. While we treat the symptoms of a culture that devalues young girls and women to the point that their voices and wishes are worth nothing, what really bothers me are the causes.

They are manifold and complex, of course, but they are also our responsibility to change. Just before Christmas a group of cross-party MPs issued a report pushing the importance of sex education for young people. One of the arguments they held up was that young men would otherwise learn about sex from porn, which would lead to them viewing women only as sex objects.

I would go one step further to say that both boys and girls, in the absence of other sources and any emotional education, often learn about sex through the only means available to them: the media and the internet. Not just pornography, but sexualised images of women in everything from movie billboards, video games and TV adverts, to the pages of widely-read tabloids.

Remember that we are not talking simply about one image every now and again, but a continual bombardment of them since birth. It doesn't take a massive leap of the imagination to see how this leads to a problematic, objectified notion of women and girls.

One of the things the young women involved in our Empower programme have in common is low belief in their own self-worth. It would be hard enough to change their damaging opinions of themselves if it were only the men who assaulted them telling them they're good only for sex. But the culture surrounding them means that they believe it even before it's cemented by the de-humanising experience of sexual violence.

We recognise also that it's vital to not only lift a girl's self esteem but also give her tools to develop resilience as her peers are likely to still talk about young women in derogatory way. This is the reality of life for many and for this reason we also are now starting work with young men to challenge their views of girls.. It is vital, for both girls and boys, that we dispel negative images of young women by exploring what a healthy relationship means.

According to the NSPCC thousands of teenage girls who are sexually assaulted by boys suffer in silence because they often accept the abuse as part of a relationship or don't know how to stop it. Sexual violence among our young people is an epidemic we cannot ignore. Yet it is too easily neglected. When you think of gangs, you're likely to conjure up a mental image of boys and men, but every young woman associated with a gang member is at significant risk of sexual violence and exploitation. At the Safer London Foundation, we believe that tackling issues around sexual violence should take centre-stage in any discussion on gang violence.

Similarly, the mainstream media's representation of women and its normalising of pornography, should be one of our first ports of call when searching for the causes of sexual violence.

As we start the new year and look to what we can do to make a difference, let's not forget the young women bearing the impact of a society that does not take media objectification of women seriously.

Sexual violence does not exist in a vacuum. One way we can show our collective disgust at its existence is by refusing to accept that women as sex objects is the norm.

Around the Web

Sexual assault - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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