This week, the Times published an article which documented the story of Shamima Begum, one of the three 15-year-old girls from Britain who travelled together to Syria around 4 years ago. The journalist, Anthony Loyd, had traced Shamima to a refugee camp in Syria. Heavily pregnant at the time of the interview, the now 19-year-old wants to return to the UK. Her first two children, a son and a daughter, both died at the ages of 8 and 21 months respectively. She did not want her third child, a boy that she gave birth to just a few days later, to die in the same way.
There has been much debate as to what our response to Shamima should be: ranging from execution at one end to welcome and rehabilitation at another. I do not seek here to expand on those arguments per se. However, I do think it is important to address some of the discussions around ‘grooming’ that are being had as part of this debate. We know that Shamima and her friends had been in contact with extremists online before they left the UK. Just three months earlier, in November 2014, the UK Safer Internet Centre published a special bulletin to draw attention to the threat of online radicalisation. They said:
“We are perhaps more familiar with this ‘grooming’ process and the risks posed to children by older young people and adults who form relationships with children to ultimately abuse them – the process is similar and exploits the same vulnerabilities.”
What is Grooming?
Grooming occurs when someone builds an emotional connection with a child to gain their trust for the purposes of sexual abuse, sexual exploitation or trafficking. This can happen online or in person, by someone known to the child or a stranger. Offenders target children, often based on a perceived vulnerability – perhaps an emotional neediness or insecurity – and will use this is a hook to gain trust. They take time to develop a relationship with the child to identify their needs and desires and then find ways of fulfilling those needs, sometimes through simple acts of expressing affection and giving attention. They will position themselves as the “hero”, the only person who understands the child, and over time, isolate them from others. Having established trust and emotional dependency, the offender(s) will progressively sexualise the relationship, desensitising the child in the process by shaping the discussions that they have with the child so as to normalise this behaviour. Abusers commonly maintain control through a combination of guilt and fear.
We have seen this pattern of grooming take place in the cases of street grooming across the country, in testimonies given to the IICSA inquiry of abuse in the context of the church and in the testimonies of survivors following the arrest of Football coach Barry Bennell. And yes, it certainly appears that this is exactly what happened to Shamima and her friends.
I know many who read this will feel anger at my positioning of Shamima’s story alongside those of sexual abuse and exploitation in other contexts, but is her situation really so different? ‘ISIS Bride’ is an ugly term to use to describe a 15-year-old child, but our use of it serves as a quiet and undignified acknowledgement of what happened to her. In a recent interview, Shamima talks about her desire to have a family several times, and how travelling to Syria had fulfilled her aspirations in this respect. Shamima did not travel to Syria to fight, this child travelled with the expectation of ‘marrying’. She was not groomed for war, she was groomed for sex.
Children who have been groomed rarely recognise their own grooming, often identify with those abusing them and take years to unpick how they were manipulated, or their vulnerability was exploited. They can also be drawn into the criminal activity of those responsible for their grooming. In a campaign supported by the police, survivors of child sexual exploitation have fought for the law to be amended so that victims of abuse are pardoned for crimes they committed under the direction of their abuser. Speaking in support of the law, Vera Baird QC, the lead police and crime commissioner for victims, said:
“It is obviously correct that if someone’s will is overborne by coercion, and factors that work to undermine people’s willpower and their individuality when they are sexually abused, then clearly they’re not personally guilty of what they have done.”
Why don’t they just leave?
Victims of abuse can very often develop a strong sense of loyalty towards their abuser, despite the hurt that they inflict on them. This is known as trauma bonding or Stockholm Syndrome – essentially the human brain’s survival mechanism. Fear activates the survival part of the brain, the amygdala, which concerns itself with survival in a very immediate sense. The response is not logical; it is dictated by the power and control that the abuser exerts over the child. The grooming process, in itself, alters a child’s sense of normality. As mentioned earlier, many children may not recognise that they are being abused but when they do they often blame themselves. A victim is a victim, even if they do not present themselves as one, and even if they are unable to articulate the abuse that they have suffered.
This is why it is so important that we remain vigilant. Sara Rowbotham, was an NHS sexual health worker in the Rochdale Crisis Intervention Team from 2004 to 2014, and helped to expose the grooming scandal in the town. When she spoke at the FACES conference last year, she gave a damning account of how the abuse of young girls -children – was ignored because authorities refused to see them as victims. I use the word refuse here deliberately: this was not a failure to see abuse, but a decision to ignore abuse even when it was brought to their attention. Abusers were being described as ‘boyfriends’, and the abuse as ‘lifestyle choices.’ A report in to the response of authorities in Newcastle to child sexual exploitation noted that the gangs acted with “arrogant persistence” after police were seen to be punishing victims. This included instances where girls were placed in secure accommodation-from the girl’s perspective, they were effectively being locked up.
Aside from the deeply racist implications of Sajid Javid’s decision to revoke Shamima’s British nationality and making her stateless, his words and actions in relation to her serve as a stark reminder that very little has been learnt from past failings. With support and guidance, young people can be capable of making informed choices. A teenager however, whose vulnerability has been exploited cannot be viewed simply as having made a ‘free choice’, when those choices are clearly manipulated and the ability to do so is constrained by her age, and perhaps multiple other factors.
A victim of abuse will not always present themselves to us in the way that we expect them to. It is disappointing that we continue to engage in discussions that ask why children who are groomed and abused didn’t make different choices, or are held to account for what adults have done to them. Shamima is clearly a victim of child sexual exploitation. Her faith and ethnicity combined with her association with criminality and her apparent lack of remorse strike a triple blow to her vulnerability and abuse being recognised.
To suggest that children are willing participants in sexual relationships, is victim blaming at its very worst and it shifts the blame away from the perpetrators of abuse, and disregards the pain and trauma inflicted on their victims.
(Co-chair, Faiths Against Child Sexual Exploitation)