We Must Act to Prevent Abused Girls Growing into Abused Women

By Katharine Sacks-Jones, Director, Agenda

Girls who grow up with abuse are at risk of being abused as adults, and we are not doing enough to protect them.

Abuse has a number of effects on girls. Girls who are abused growing up may run away from home or truant from school, putting them at risk of homelessness and having a serious impact on their qualifications and future life chances. Some girls turn to drugs or alcohol as a way of coping with the distress and trauma they've experienced. Some get involved in gangs or petty crime, and come into contact with the police and criminal justice system. Abuse also increases the likelihood of serious mental health problems and disabilities.

All of these things make a girl an easy target for perpetrators and so vulnerable to further abuse whilst making it harder for her to get help. We know perpetrators of domestic violence target women or girls who they think will be easier to control and some will deliberately target girls who have run away from home or care or girls who are truanting from school to sexually exploit them.

Yet we know that too often girls who run away from home or truant from school are seen as ‘trouble makers’ or ‘attention seekers’, especially if they are also involved in low-level criminal activity. Part of the problem has been societal attitudes. In some areas when girls have been targeted by perpetrators of child sexual exploitation, professionals have been reluctant to intervene or have dismissed them because instead of seeing abuse, they see these girls as ‘sexually precocious’ women in relationships with older men, or as prostitutes. When vulnerable girls commit crimes or become involved in gangs, it can be too easy for people to see them just as criminals, and not as the victims of much more serious crimes.

Girls who have mental health problems or who use drugs and alcohol are even less likely to be believed if they talk about abuse. This is despite very good evidence that women with severe mental health problems or addictions are very likely to have been abused. Part of the reason perpetrators target girls with mental health issues or addictions is because they know those girls are unlikely to be taken seriously.

Sadly, specialist services to support girls and women who have experienced abuse as children and who may be at risk of being abused again are thin on the ground and poorly funded. There is also not enough knowledge and recognition of girls’ needs in more mainstream services like health and the police.

There is no need for girls who have been abused as children to end up as abused adults. We can and should step in to protect vulnerable girls. In order to achieve that, we need leadership from national and local government to make sure women and girls who experience the most extensive abuse get appropriate support, wherever they turn for help.