I sit down for coffee and a chat on a sunny terrace with a friend who's a senior youth worker, and she says. "We have a big problem with our 11-13 year old girls". She works on the edge of a big city, in charge of a large youth centre. Her young clients are often affiliated to gangs. She bans all gang talk, throwing of signs and bandanas that identify which gang they belong to. No weapons either. It's to create a safe oasis in their chaotic world. But she's worried it's girls that are suffering most.
I know the dangers girls face from social media and an increasingly sexualised world (having written my book: A Teenage Girl's Guide To Being Fabulous! Specifically for 11- 16 year olds) but I'm not prepared for what she tells me. I leave two hours later feeling angry and ashamed that here in the U.K. girls are in such a situation and I feel powerless to do anything to help.
These girls live in a world that is dark and dangerous - existing around a few streets where they live. Many don't go to school and amazingly no one takes any notice. They are routinely humiliated by boys and sexually abused, sometimes raped but think that's just life. My friend tells me she has set up a sexual health clinic because girls as young as 13 are sexually active, passed round by their boyfriends to other gang members - some girls have been the victims of rape. The rapes happen at so called "parties" but the cases rarely get to court and if they do - because the girls willingly went to the parties - they are seen as complicit and the sex consensual.
These "boyfriends" are not kind. Not only do they use the girls for sex but to hide their weapons, guns, knives and drugs. Being so young and female, the police rarely search them.
The boys humiliate them. The youth worker tells me: "They do things like send them to buy takeaways and then make them sit on the other side of the room while they eat. The girls aren't allowed."
These girls are vulnerable but talk tough and are aggressive. They are in need but trust no one in authority.
They are unsympathetic characters to many because they swear and threaten those who want to help. But she tells me this aggression isn't personal. It's all they've ever known. To them it's normal. She says: "If we get outraged and ban them from the centre we are not doing our job and we will never be able to help them."
The trouble is, doing the job is almost impossible.
She tells me they have never experienced things we take for granted like coming to a coffee shop, or even drinking from a cup and saucer. She describes an event where the girls asked for plastic beakers ignoring the cups and saucers put out for drinks. She says: "They thought they were only for us."
It's hard to hear this in what is the world's 5th richest country.
Are things really as bad as I describe? Well it's certainly not every girl's life but she tells me there are around 50 plus girls she's worried about.
Before we leave I offer her some of my books to give out to her youngest girls. It feels a little lame.
The girls I'm talking about are hard to help but that shouldn't stop society trying. What I want to know is, how did we get to this situation in the first place?Suggest a correction