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We Should Not Lose Sympathy When Three Girls Become Women

When we see women with addictions, in prison or having their children removed by social services, we can be quick to judge with little thought as to the traumatic experiences that underpin so many of these women's lives.

The BBC programme Three Girls was a harrowing watch.

If you have seen it, you will have seen the dramatised but all too real scenes of the horrific abuse and exploitation that young girls in Rochdale experienced at the hands of a gang of violent and manipulative men.

It has brought attention back to their awful situation and how many of the services and support systems meant to help them, let them down.

The injustice of what they suffered may have really affected you; perhaps you discussed it with your friends the day after, maybe it kept you up at night, haunted by some of those horrible, violent images.

But, ultimately, when the series finishes, we'll go back to our normal lives: seeing friends, going out to work, watching other telly programmes that make us cry.

For the girls that this happened to - and the literally hundreds of thousands across the country who have experienced similar abuse - it is something they have to live with every day.

How do you start to feel good about yourself again after that? How do you get a job after that? How do you form new relationships?

Never mind that. How do you get through the day?

No wonder they need a drink. No wonder they try to block it out.

Downward spiral

Agenda's research shows that one in 20 women - that's 1.2 million women in England alone - have experienced extensive violence as both a child and again as an adult.

For these women and girls, many of whom were already vulnerable, it can be the start of a downward spiral.

Without the proper support to deal with what happened to them, they can face very low self-esteem and mental health problems, and they may use drugs and alcohol to cope with what they experienced.

Last week's programmes showed this powerfully, as the character Holly drank heavily to deal with her trauma, which then saw social services take her child away. An absolutely heart-wrenching moment.

Yet this pattern is sadly all too common. Many women who have experienced abuse end up having their children removed - adding another layer of trauma to what they have already suffered.

Like Holly and Amber, thousands live in hostels. Many will have come from poor backgrounds and are at risk of homelessness, which in turns puts them at risk of being exploited again or getting involved in crime to survive.

But as girls like Holly and Amber grow into women and struggle to deal with the terrible things they have experienced, in ways we find it difficult to understand, society's sympathy wanes.

When we see women with addictions, in prison or having their children removed by social services, we can be quick to judge with little thought as to the traumatic experiences that underpin so many of these women's lives.

Do not turn away

Anyone who watched that programme will I'm sure be shocked and outraged at how easily these girls were dismissed. Witness the policeman interviewing Holly question her about previous sexual experiences, or the social worker tell her father she is a prostitute. She clearly is not because, as Sara Rowbotham, the girls' sexual health worker, powerfully pointed out there is no such thing as a child prostitute, only a child being abused.

Yet the truth is these kind of attitudes still persist. And girls and women are still let down time and again by a system which judges traumatised girls and women on their behaviour and punishes them by removing their children, by putting them in prison.

Having those responsible convicted or having your story put on the telly, doesn't wipe away the horrific trauma you are left with.

We need to invest in services that support women and help them tackle the underlying issues they face - rather than seeing them as a series of separate problems to be ticked off or packed away.

But also key is that the public - and public services - do not turn away.

These girls - and the thousands like them - are still out there. Many will still be traumatised, still be suffering.

The TV programme is an opportunity to remind ourselves of what these girls went through - and what they might still be going through.

But it shouldn't end there - they need more than our sympathy, they need long-term support to help them rebuild their lives.

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