Protecting children and young people from sex abuse is a job for all of us

As long as we have a culture where people walk past incidents, no amount of child protection or police procedure will prevent this exploitation
teenage girl in park
Young people are being exploited in our parks in clear public view. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Not a week goes by without a new report exposing the professional struggle to protect children and young people from sexual abuse and exploitation. The latest revelations are from Birmingham city council, which found that 132 local children are suffering from or vulnerable to sexual abuse, and the convictions of 13 men in Bristol for the sexual abuse of girls as young as 13. A review by Ofsted of how local authorities are responding has found that, while they have been raising awareness, responses to identified cases of sexual exploitation are underdeveloped and lack coordination.
The reports by Ofsted and Birmingham, along with the sentencing of men in Bristol and recent comments from the communities and local government select committee that organised child sex abuse is “widespread in England”, all highlight an inability to protect young people that is not confined to South Yorkshire police or Rotherham council.
Of course it is easier to point the finger at individuals or places that have nothing to do with “us”, and wonder why they are failing young people. But such a narrative simply sustains a sense of collective denial that the UK has an endemic issue with sexual violence requiring societal change.
Young people are being exploited on our streets and in our parks and shopping centres in clear public view. Yes, children’s services and the police play a crucial role in protecting young people, but they generally come in when things have gone wrong. If we really want to prevent the exploitation from happening in the first place then we need to create a climate where it can’t happen.
We still have a society where: victims of rape are named, bullied online and held partially responsible for what others to do them; successive governments have failed to equip young people to challenge these myths through the lack of provision in schools of statutory personal, social and health education (PSHE); women are sexually assaulted on public transport and people fail to intervene; and comics, who think rape is a laughing matter, are only decommissioned from mainstream television when enough people complain.
While complaints demonstrate that some are willing to stand up to a misogynistic culture of violence and abuse – the fact that there is anything to protest about is where the problem lies.
Walking down the street or travelling to school, young people witness and experience behaviours that underpin and sustain abuse. Following the report by Ann Coffey MP which found that young girls were approached by men on the streets of Greater Manchester, girls and young women from across the country have sent in stories to the Everyday Sexism project detailing incidents of being groped or stroked by men in public and of men masturbating in front of them on tubes and buses. I’ve had men shout “Slut, get your tits out!” as I walked down the street.
Since much of this abuse takes place in public, people working in those spaces, such as park wardens, transport police and community safety officers, and those who use them, the general public, all have a role in protecting young people.
It is time for the government, inspectorates and the media to stop pointing fingers and start promoting collective responsibility for the safety of young people. For as long as we have a culture where victims are blamed, consent is blurred and people walk past abusive incidents, no amount of child protection procedure will prevent the exploitation of young people.
June Eric Udorie, 16, is a student, blogger and feminist campaigner. She co-wrote this column with Carlene Firmin, head of the Ms Understood Partnership

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