Child abuse exists in the shadows and makes it hard to see the sheer scale of it in the UK. The most recent data from NSPCC approximates that half a million children are being abused. If the estimate of one in four girls and one in eight boys have experienced inappropriate sexual advances by adulthood is correct, I don't doubt that the NSPCC figure is accurate.
As a country, we seem to have accepted that child abuse is almost inevitable. We get irate and call for resignations when each prosecution comes to court, but it is always the social worker or police officer to blame, rather than what could have been done to prevent it. Remember that each crime represents a child. The outcomes of abuse can be devastating.
The Prime Minister was right to recognise child abuse as a national emergency. It is! But the initiatives the Government have put in place focus on spotting signs and catching perpetrators. We now have a situation when four chairs of Parliamentary Select Committees are calling for statutory relationship education for all children (currently, schools are only obliged to give a biology lesson on sex). These lessons would include teaching respect, consent and consequences to empower and educate young people so they can make informed choices. To date, the Government have not responded.
As the recently appointed Shadow Minister for Preventing Abuse and Domestic Violence, I feel I have a duty to try and prevent child abuse, not just show outrage once the crime is committed. I first started researching and campaigning in this field a month after my by-election win on 29th November 2012. The local council was in front of the Home Affairs Select Committee because of its poor record in addressing child sexual exploitation (CSE). This was the first time I'd heard the term and assumed it was a form of abuse specific to the area. Sadly, my research has shown that CSE is in every town and village, with catastrophic consequences and more disturbing, is only one form of abuse our young people are facing.
What can we do to stop this abuse - or do we just accept it is inevitable? More importantly, what can an opposition Member of Parliament do? With this question keeping me awake, I developed the idea of Dare2Care. The campaign aims to start a cultural fight-back to protect all children. Instead of accepting that child abuse is rife and focusing on the crime once committed, what interventions can we 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?
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 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.