After being elected as the Member of Parliament for Rotherham on 29 November 2012 I heard about child sexual exploitation for the first time. I was sat in a Home Affairs Select Committee where members of Rotherham Council were being grilled on how they were dealing with the abuse of young women and girls in the town. I had attended the Committee because it was about my constituency. I had no idea that child abuse would go on to shape my work for the following three years.
Child sexual exploitation (CSE) is a very specific crime where a child is manipulated by their abuser to have sex with them or their associates. The manipulation can take the form of intimidation and blackmail or it can be through persuading the child that the abuser loves them and therefore 'owes' them sex. The long-term psychological damage to the latter form of manipulation is that the child feels the abuse is their fault, or part of a 'normal' relationship, rather than seeing it as rape and child abuse.
Within a year, my research had shown that child sexual exploitation was not simply a Rotherham issue, it was national. Working with the charity Barnardo's, I ran a parliamentary inquiry which made various recommendations. These included: changing the law around grooming to make sure the police can prosecute on the first occasion a child is approached for sex (as it stood, they had to wait until the second contact), changing the training given to judges and guidance to juries and most significantly, getting the Prime Minister to hold a summit on child sexual exploitation, which resulted in the establishment of a task force to tackle the crime.
Through my campaigning to prevent the specific crime of CSE, I found out more and more about the scale of child abuse in the UK. It is truly shocking. Most recent data from NSPCC approximates that half-a-million children are being abused. If the estimate that one in four girls, and one in eight boys have experienced inappropriate sexual advances by the time they reach adulthood is correct, I don't doubt that the NSPCC figure is accurate.
So what can we do to stop this abuse that is on an epic scale? More importantly, what can I as a Member of Parliament do?
With this question keeping me awake, I developed the idea of Dare2Care. The campaign hopes to start a cultural fightback to protect all children. Rather than accepting that child abuse is rife and only focusing on the crime once it has been committed, what are the interventions we can make to prevent the crime occurring in the first place?
Dare2Care looks at the moments in a child's life when we can give them the tools to recognise and address inappropriate sexual behaviour. How can a young child know that they are being abused by a relative when the relative is telling them that it is normal and must be kept a secret? How can a young person understand about consent and boundaries when their only source of information on sex is by watching internet pornography?
Dare2Care aims to tackle all these issues by providing a website full of resources and signposted support for young people, parents and professionals so that everyone is not only better equipped at spotting the signs of abuse but that all necessary and comprehensive support is in one, easily accessible place. The Dare2Care website will be a place for people to share their stories anonymously and where blogs from specialist charities and experts can be used to inform and educate.
The final part of the campaign is to investigate the cultural shift that I have seen in young people, in that they now see violence in their relationships as normal. From research done by academics and charities, this normalisation of violence is driven by the internet and social media. The mass proliferation of sexting, cyber-bullying and on-line grooming, when added to my earlier comments about young people finding out about relationships from watching on-line porn has created a toxic cocktail that we, as a society simply have to address.
I believe Dare2Care can be the next step in a cultural fight-back that begins to prevent child abuse from happening. Please join us. Together we can stop child abuse.
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