Last year, the #timesup and #metoo campaigns brought the prevalence of sexual harassment, abuse and assault experienced by women into the spotlight. These movements have inspired and empowered individuals and groups to challenge the abuse experienced by women, disrupting narratives that sexual harassment and structural inequalities are something that women should accept as part of their lives. But how do we ensure that these movements also include the experiences of young women and girls who often have less power and influence and whose voices are not heard? We know women experience sexual harassment and abuse in a range of contexts, including at work and in public spaces. Despite this, when addressing the abuse experienced by women under 18, traditional safeguarding approaches have a focus on abuse that occurs within the family and/or home, and process isn’t in place to acknowledge the fact that many young women face abuse within their peer groups, often in public spaces.
Safer London works with and advocates for young women, their families, parents and carers, professionals and communities affected by Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE). Young women are at greater risk of CSE and sexual harassment than young men. The abuse they experience usually occurs outside the family home, and we know from our work that there are significant barriers for them to come forwards and seek help. The young women we work with told us about YouTube clips known as ‘baiting out skets’ videos. These films are made by young people, most often young men in shopping centres and other public places. They film other young people and ask them who is [sexually] available and what they would ‘do’. Identifiable details of the young women are given that have included, names, addresses and schools.
Young women talked to us about how these videos lead to them being judged and labelled by their partners, peers and communities as well as rival groups and gangs. In addition to the intense psychological harm the videos can cause, there is also an increased risk of sexual violence and bullying towards the young women. In some cases, we heard that the films would be seen as a substitute for consent. Experiences like these disrupt young women’s lives. They are not safe in their own communal spaces, they are at risk of further abuse, and the videos often lead to long absences from school.
In response to these issues Safer London developed our CSE Safeguarding in Public Spaces Pilot. Delivered across three major shopping centres in London, we engaged with young people in community spaces, hearing about their views and experiences of their safety in public spaces, and how it could be improved across a range or community settings.
We recruited Peer Advisors who we trained on CSE awareness, risks and vulnerabilities and safeguarding as well as how to engage the public within community settings, worked with them to co-produce surveys and use these to capture views and opinions.
One of the survey findings that Peer Advisors found most surprising was the high proportion of young people who knew about the ‘baiting out skets’ videos: 68% of young people said they knew about the videos. Peer Advisors spoke about how shocking it was that not only did young people know about the videos, but they had seen them online, and they often featured people in their schools.
“I was surprised how many [young people] had seen the videos .”
Despite this Peer Advisors found that 54% of young people surveyed said they had heard about CSE and that young people were often reluctant to talk about this topic, or didn’t feel that it was something they could or should talk about:
“I was surprised to know that people know about it and know it’s happening but they’re not confident about talking to other people about it, they keep it to themselves.”
“Some of them [young people] thought it [CSE] was taboo”
“For me one of the main learnings was that CSE is common but so hidden. No one talks about it.”
Almost one in four (23%) young people told Peer Advisors that they had felt uncomfortable, intimidated or scared whilst in shopping centres, with this figure rising when only looking at young women (29% of young women compared with 14% of young men).
“One of the themes that came up often was mostly young females who said that they sometimes didn’t feel safe in the shopping centre and that surprised me. Generally they talked about older boys being loud and dominant, not necessarily aggressive but it made them feel vulnerable”.
When they asked young people about what they would do or who they would talk to if they felt unsafe, worryingly the answer was often not to tell anyone.
“Many [young people] said that if they feel unsafe they would go to the toilets or a store, or somewhere more crowded, but that doesn’t mean that they’ll be safe cause they’re not telling anyone or asking anyone for help, so they go somewhere else but no one knows you’re in trouble”
Peer Advisors found that 54% of young people they spoke to thought there was no help available if they experienced (sexual) harassment or abuse when in the shopping centre. This highlights one of the main issues traditional safeguarding approaches fail to address: how do we keep young people safe when they are not in the home? When asked about this young people called for a variety of different things; youth workers/peer advisors to be present in public spaces (29%); safe spaces for young people to go to (27%) or help desks specifically for young people (21%) and more approachable security (24%). Peer Advisors raised how important it felt to have peer-led support:
“I think the project is important because females are not confident talking about it, and having to know that there is people talking about it that there are people like us willing to help them is really really good, maybe they will get the confidence to talk about it”
They spoke about how it was an opportunity to start up conversations and raise young people’s awareness, allowing them to reflect on their own experiences and opinions in a safe setting:
“I think young people we talked to learned about CSE and also about safety, a lot didn’t realise what made them feel safe or unsafe so they learned about that.”
“It’s good for young men to talk about CSE because it’s kind of seen as a comedic aspect to it where people kind of laugh it off, they don’t take it seriously. Young people need to be able to talk to each other so we are more aware in case we’re in the that situation“
Peer Advisors fed back that they really enjoyed being part of this kind of project and directly engaging with young people.
“It made me feel good about myself because I know it’s helping other young people”
“It was challenging in a good way, to go up to groups [of young people], it made me go out of my comfort zone but I liked it, it helped me with my confidence.”
“It makes you talk to lots of people from various backgrounds, so it’s good and helped me grow as a person.”
Our response to young women’s experiences of sexual violence need to mirror our responses to adult women; we cannot ignore their safety, or lack thereof, within public spaces. The Safer London CSE Safeguarding in Public Spaces Pilot has shown we need to be responsive to the considerable barriers young women face in seeking help; raising awareness, bringing the support to them in the spaces that they go and ensuring they are part of the support and solution. This is what young people called for.
About Safer London
Safer London works to prevent and address gang violence, vulnerability and sexual exploitation. Our vision is a world where all young people can thrive, free from exposure to gangs, exploitation and crime. We provide needs led intensive support, early intervention and mentoring through our extensive pan London services.
The CSE Safeguarding in Public Spaces Pilot is applicable in a range of community settings beyond shopping centres. Based on the findings from this research and our expertise developed from other strands of work, including local training and protocols, we have developed a toolkit to support professionals in public spaces to safeguard young people.
 Sexual Violence The London Sexual Violence Needs Assessment 2016 for MOPAC & NHS England (London), https://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/sexual_violence_needs_assessment_report_2016.pdf p8