15/05/2017 13:23 BST | Updated 15/05/2017 13:23 BST

Three Girls: BBC One's Drama About Child Sex Abuse Is Disturbing But Essential Viewing


As you peruse the TV listings, wondering what to watch tomorrow night, make a decision to challenge yourself.

It's understandable that, after a long day, the dramatisation of the true story of young girls who were systematically groomed and abused by an organised gang of men - and the catastrophic failures of the agencies who were supposed to help them - might not be your idea of something to unwind to.

But, although BBC1's new drama Three Girls is confronting, it's absolutely vital viewing. It tells the story of three of the 47 children who were victims of the grooming and sex trafficking scandal in Rochdale.

The three hour-long episodes follow the story of Holly, Ruby and Amber, characters based on the real-life victims who were groomed and sexually exploited by a gang of Asian men (mainly British Pakistanis) from 2008-2012. The gripping drama shines a light on the ingrained culture of disbelief and apathy towards the young victims. For years social services, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service turned a blind eye to the abuse the girls were suffering, convinced no jury would believe what had happened to them.

Children aged just 13 were dismissed as troublemakers because they had disrupted lives and had been lured into staying out late and drinking. But these were desperately vulnerable children who were failed by the people who were supposed to protect them.

No such thing as a child prostitute

Children are never to blame for the abuse they suffer. As Maxine Peake's real-life character Sara Rowbotham - a sexual health worker who battled to uncover the abuse - points out in one episode, "there's no such thing as a child prostitute. What there is, is a child who's been abused".

It was only when north west England's Chief Crown Prosecutor Nazir Afzal (also a British Pakistani) looked at the evidence once again and took the brave decision to believe the girls and take nine men to trial. They were all eventually convicted of crimes including rape and human trafficking.

As a father with daughters myself, I found watching the BBC1 drama a gut-wrenching experience when I saw it at a preview screening. I felt the deep anguish of Holly's father when he realised she wasn't simply acting out; she had been abused and exploited.

Three Girls should help bring child sexual exploitation into the public's consciousness, hopefully reducing the number of children and young people affected by it. I hope professionals working with children will learn from it, but also that parents and carers from all communities will better understand what could be happening around them.

All children are vulnerable

We now know that Rochdale was not an isolated case. Child sexual exploitation has been uncovered in towns, cities and counties all over the country and it affects both girls and boys from all backgrounds. It is committed by abusers from all walks of life, ethnicities, cultures and classes and it robs children of their childhoods and tears families apart.

At Barnardo's we know from our decades of experience that all children are vulnerable to being groomed, not just stereotypical 'at risk' children. Groomers will exploit any kind of vulnerability in their target, gain their trust, isolate them from friends and family and make them feel loved or valued before the abuse begins.

And we know that victims are not always aware that they are being manipulated and coerced into sex; they often believe they are in a loving relationship with their exploiter.

When it's introduced in September 2019, compulsory, age-appropriate relationships and sex education for all children in England will mean they grow up understanding healthy relationships and respect. It will also mean they are empowered to identify risky situations and will teach them where to seek advice and help. But lessons must include 'sexting', consent and online grooming to help protect children from being groomed and sexually exploited.

A joined-up system of working with local authorities, the police and other organisations is essential to spot the tell-tale signs of abuse and all professionals working with children need training to ensure they are confident about identifying those at risk of harm online and offline.

We need to remember and learn from the mistakes of the past to ensure they are not repeated. This kind of institutional neglect of a whole sector of society must never happen again and we need programmes like Three Girls to remind us.

  • Three Girls will be broadcast at 9pm on BBC1 on three consecutive nights from Tuesday, May 16.