Sexual exploitation: east London’s B Free and Street Matters’ work with girls`

On the outside, the building on a busy street in east London doesn’t advertise itself as anything other than a young people’s centre. Inside it’s a different story. Known only to those who work there and those who seek its help, the centre also houses two NSPCC projects, Street Matters and BFree.

Street Matters has been running for six years, its inception coinciding with guidance from the Department of Health on safeguarding children involved in prostitution.1 Its staff are qualified social workers and youth workers funded by the NSPCC and Tower Hamlets’ Children’s Fund.

It works with 10- to 18-year-old girls living in the Whitechapel area at risk of being, or who have been, sexually exploited. (BFree offers a national consultation service for trafficked and sexually exploited young women.) Its definition of sexual exploitation is “any activity containing or suggesting a sexual component that a young person is not consenting to freely”.

Once buzzed into the building, the brightness of the walls contrasts with the darkness that has blighted the lives of many of its young visitors. A bright blue entrance leads into a lime green reception area and the lounge, used for a drop-in on Thursdays between 4-7pm, has four sofas scattered with cheerfully coloured cushions.

The décor is equally vibrant in the computer room, counselling room, meeting room, shower room and kitchen. The kitchen is used to encourage young people to join in with cooking their meal at the drop-in.

The drop-in alternates between workshops – on topics such as peer support, sexual health services, drugs – and a social outing. Today it’s go-karting.

This type of group work is just as important as individual work, says Nasima Patel, who set up Street Matters and is area children’s services manager for the NSPCC. “Some girls don’t want the closeness of a one-to-one service with a key worker initially, but that normally changes.”

The service also sees many girls who have been trafficked from Africa or are unaccompanied minors, who have been sexually exploited in Africa or when they arrive in the UK.

Street Matters also runs a six-week preventive programme in schools. Between six and eight girls deemed by the schools to be vulnerable take part in safety and self-awareness work with the parents’ consent.

Street Matters is working with about 80 girls at the moment. Patel says: “Some have been with us for years. It’s hard to stop working with the African girls because there is no one else to pick up the work.”

Sixty per cent of young people up to the age of 25 in Tower Hamlets are Bengali, so it’s not surprising that between April 2004 and March 2005, 31 per cent of the young girls that Street Matters worked with were of Bangladeshi background 22 per cent were white.

Patel says: “When we first set up the service quite a few people said we wouldn’t get Bangladeshi girls coming in because it would be too difficult for them to talk about sex because of cultural and religious issues.”

But they have indeed come, presumably because there are so few places where they can talk about sex and relationships. Many face conflict in their family as parents set boundaries, and some visit Street Matters to talk about forced marriage.

“Bangladeshi girls can be particularly vulnerable [to sexual exploitation] because many come from families and communities where having boyfriends isn’t allowed so they have secret boyfriends and they don’t have many safe adults to help them through the minefield of relationships,” says Patel.

“They have romantic notions but some of the boyfriends are older men, sometimes married and possibly exploitative.”

Hope amid the hurt and cynicism
By the age of 14 Jasmine* had been raped, was being sexually exploited by older men, had taken a drug overdose and was diagnosed with chlamydia.

It was when she was 13 that “everything collided with my mum and me” and they started arguing over every little thing. By this time Jasmine’s stepfather had been living with them for about a year.

Their poor relationship hit a nadir when he beat her up after she arrived home slightly late from school. Jasmine reacted by running away and calling ChildLine who advised her to go to the police, who in turn called social services.

She says: “I was put on the child protection register and was allocated a social worker and went to a children’s home for a couple of days and then went back home.”

But a few months later, unable to take the constant rowing with her mother, she left again. This pattern continued for the next couple of years, culminating in 16 police missing person reports on her in a year.

The pressure at home led to her taking an overdose – the first of four in two years. “With all the anger inside me when I took it, it made me feel high. It didn’t take the anger out or solve the problem but it released me, I lost all the tension.”

Every time Jasmine ran away she ended up sleeping with older men so that she had a roof over her head. “I was basically what social services would class as a prostitute. I knew perfectly well what I was doing and what was happening but I still carried on.”

She thinks about 10 men have sexually exploited her. But she has also been exploited by those she knew:

“I was sort-of raped when I was 14. I was having sex with my boyfriend and seven other boys came into the room and he looked like he was expecting them to come and I went to get dressed and they wouldn’t let me and I was high at the time and one after the other”

Her voice trails off. When asked why she says she was “sort-of” raped when it’s clear it was a gang rape, she replies: “I didn’t do anything to stop them.”

Like many rape victims, she didn’t report the crime to the police, still sees her perpetrators on the streets and feels guilty for “letting” it happen, even though there was nothing she could have done to prevent it.

Still only 16, it’s not surprising that someone who has seen so much of the bad side of life at such a young age is cynical: “All men want the same thing. Men don’t like you, they don’t want you, they just want sex.”

Social services put her in touch with Street Matters and for the past year Jasmine hasn’t slept with men who are out to exploit her.

“Street Matters opened up my eyes, gave me a wake-up call.”

She is now back at home with her mother and her new stepfather, whom Jasmine gets on with. The future is promising: “This time I have back-up. I want to concentrate on school, doing GCSEs, then college to do psychology, sociology and drama A-levels. I want to help girls in trouble.”

* Name has been changed

Risk indicators for young women
● History of sexual abuse.
● Drug and alcohol issues.
● Vulnerable groups such as young people in care, unaccompanied minors, those with learning difficulties.
● Absenteeism from school.
● Poor relationships with family and peers.
● Self-harm.
● Associating with older men.
● Reports from reliable sources suggesting involvement in prostitution.

Further information
(1) Department of Health, Home Office, Safeguarding Children Involved in Prostitution, Supplementary Guidance to Working Together to Safeguard Children, HMSO, 2000

Contact the author
  Natalie Valios

This article appeared in the 19th April issue under the headline “Street smart”

This weeks other feature article
A social worker at an adolescent psychiatric unit examines the dynamics of multi-disciplinary teams



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