Advocate roles created to support female victims of gang rape, violence and exploitation in worst affected areas of UK
"If you have sex with a girl and there is no permission, what is it?" A group of year 10 students shuffled their feet and looked down at the ground. "Rape," said one boy quietly; others nodded.
The government chose this session at a south London school ? designed to tackle the issue of sexual violence in gangs ? to announce new "advocates" for victims of sexual violence and exploitation in gangs in the worst affected areas of the country.
The 13 advocates will support victims of rape and sexual abuse, and work with vulnerable young people at risk of being targeted by gangs.
The move comes after the home secretary, Theresa May, warned that girls were being raped as gang "weapons" and promised ?1.2m of new money over three years to tackle the issue as part of the government's revamped anti-gang strategy.
Speaking at Lilian Baylis technology school in Kennington on Thursday, Lynne Featherstone, the Home Office minister for equality, said violence against girls in gangs had remained hidden for too long. "I think people would be shocked if they could see the level of violence and abuse against girls in gangs," she said. Groups working in the area were invited to bid for the advocate positions. "Our first priority is to protect girls who can see themselves as worthless objects to be used in unacceptable ways."
In the session, run by the Growing against Gangs and Violence project, the students heard girls could be used by boys in gangs as "links", casual and disposable sexual partners, or be forced to perform "lineups", a series of sexual acts on boys from the same gang.
Confronted with the example of "Saffia" ? a 14-year-old girl who was gang raped by a group of boys as punishment for losing her boyfriend's drugs package ? the girls, separated from the boys for the session, were asked what might have attracted her to her gang member boyfriend.
"She might do it for protection," said one 15-year-old. "Nowadays girls think about that because of where they are living. If they are in a really bad area they might need protection so they go for a boy in a gang."
Asked what she would need to do as a girlfriend of a gang member, the answers came back rapidly: "Have sex with him," "Look after the stuff he gives her, guns and that," "She's always there as an alibi for him."
When the subject turned to the status of girls in gangs, one 14-year-old replied: "I think they are at the bottom, because boys don't think they are important, they just get them to do their dirty work."
Next door, the boys ? confronted with the same scenario ? were being warned of the consequences of being convicted for rape. "If after prison you go back to your family's house, if the girl you raped has brothers, uncles ? what are they going to want?" asked the session leader.
In unison the boys chimed: "Revenge". Asked what they looked for in a girl, the boys listed their priorities: "Figure", "natural beauty", "no weave", "good dress sense", and with only a little extra encouragement added "truthfulness", "respect" and "responsibility". One boy noted it had to be a girl "you could take home to meet your mum". Could she be in a gang? "Nah," he said.
Still, it felt like there was work still to be done. Asked if Saffia ? who before the rape had posted on a social networking website that her boyfriend was a waste of space ? deserved to be raped, most of the boys answered with a shocked "no". But one boy said: "Kind of; you should respect your boyfriend so if you have to look after his property..." Another said: "Yes ? she shouldn't have dissed him on Facebook." The leader of the group replied: "Ultimately, no one deserves to be raped and that's the end of it."
After the session 15-year-old Abigail Owusu said the session had opened her eyes to the treatment of girls in gangs. "I thought girls were respected more if they were in gangs, and it may look like that but they are actually living in fear," she said. "I don't think I'd let myself be treated like that."
Speaking after the sessions, Featherstone said the new advocates would focus on creating a coherent programme centred around changing attitudes and prevention. "Once they are in a gang it is very, very tough," she said. "It's a long and difficult journey and there are no quick answers."