Wake Up, Mummy – Exploding the “No Sweets From Strangers” Myths

by Debi Steven, Founder & President, Action Breaks Silence

“Why are you doing this?”

It’s the question I’ve been asked most often in my 25 year career of teaching Empowerment and Personal Safety workshops to women and girls across the world and especially since setting up Action Breaks Silence in 2013.

The answer is all too stark. I’m doing this because I was raped when I was 11 years old.

And, contrary to everyone’s deep-rooted fear, this wasn’t at the hand of some mysterious stranger. It was a friend of my brother’s. Someone I knew and someone I and my friends trusted.

When it was over, he did what all cowards do. He threatened me to such a degree that I didn’t tell anyone until over 15 years later – which meant, ironically, that when I did choose to break my silence, no one believed me.

This enforced silence – the removal of our voices – is one of the most pernicious weapons that men use against us. I see it everywhere – but especially in societies or communities where women are disempowered, like India, where I’ve now taught 18,000 women and girls, or close-knit communities in the UK where girls are too terrified – or ashamed - to report their attackers.

For this reason, the statistics quoted by the Dare to Care campaign were, sadly, no surprise to me. But if we have to accept that 33% of girls aged 13 to 17 are growing up having already experienced sexual violence in their relationships, don’t we have an imperative to act? Because for the survivors of rape or abuse, it’s not just a one-off experience of terror or degradation – there is just too much proof of a heightened chance of getting involved in drug or alcohol abuse, self-harming and – in the last instance – suicide. The impact creeps into everything – our life at school, work and home – creating an all-consuming mistrust of people.

2016 – the reality

Over the last few years, I have noticed that parents everywhere haven’t yet caught up with the realities of being a young girl in 2016. Like everything else in life, those that abuse and violate have evolved.

When asking 1000s of teenage girls, they are uniformly extremely proud to know not to get into a car or take sweets from strangers. Very few, however, have been taught or have discussed the possibility that the person that may abuse them is actually someone that they know – and often someone in their parents’ or their own inner circle.

In addition, many young girls have stereotypical views about who are the ‘bad’ guys. This changes slightly depending on the environment in which they live – but what is common is that very few understand that it’s much more likely to be someone that you know and trust that will sexually assault or rape you.

What worries me is how few parents seem to educate or talk to their children about this possibility. So many young girls and women are not aware that, even if they have had consensual sex with their boyfriend or husband one day, the next day they can say no. Or that if you are too drunk (or drugged) to say no, that still means no.

Beyond that, if we are understand the evolution of predatory behaviour in 2016, we need to understand the whole concept of grooming – the deliberate act of establishing a friendship or emotional attachment with a child or young adult with the specific intention of lowering their inhibitions in order to sexually abuse them – and how this, too, has evolved.

In many cases, the first stage of this process is the predator winning the trust of the targeted child or young person’s parents. They become invaluable providers of help, kindness and support – both materialistically or emotionally – to the parent(s) – so that should the child break his/her silence, and come to the parent(s), the chances are greatly diminished that the child will be believed.

Other routes that are all too well trodden are grooming via the internet – what I now describe as a global shopping centre for predators – or using incentives or ploys such as gifts, drugs/alcohol or small animals. Up to and including breaking puppies’ legs to get young children into a car.

It is understanding these evolutions that lies at the heart of effective prevention. Beyond that, it is my personal belief (and Action Breaks Silence’s mission) that there are two key ways to try and prevent abuse or violence. The first is the empowerment and education of young girls through the provision of practical guidance on understanding gender-based violence and how to avoid this and – in the last resort – physical self-defence tools. Knowledge and understanding in a world where abuse and violence occurs so widely is, literally, power.

The second is to try and stop the problems at their root. For this reason, Action Breaks Silence has devised and piloted a programme for young boys, specifically designed to build deep-rooted empathy and, in the long term, prevent abusive and violent behaviours. Because, let’s face it, it’s never the women or girl’s fault. Never. Ever.

35 years on, I wish that I could say that I was content but – although I have been lucky enough to pass on my knowledge to thousands of young people - sadly, I feel that I’ve barely started. It won’t be until parents, governments and schools worldwide wake up to the desperate need to educate and empower women, while teaching boys to know that abuse or violence – even of the most subtle kind – is never acceptable.

About Debi Steven

Having herself survived a rape at 11 years of age, and driven by her belief that all women and teenage girls should be empowered and know how to defend themselves, Debi has built her twenty-five year career on empowering women and girls by teaching self-defence and personal safety workshops to individuals, schools, universities and many blue chip companies and organisations. In July 2013, she founded Action Breaks Silence to offer her training FREE of charge to women and girls at risk of sexual or gender-based violence in South Asia, Africa and the UK. In October 2014, Action Breaks Silence became a UK registered charity.

About Action Breaks Silence

Action Breaks Silence is a UK Registered Charity which has been established to create a world where women and girls can live their lives free from gender-based violence. Initially focused on India, Africa and the UK, the charity seeks to achieve sustainable societal change by offering a two-tiered educational programme; the first, a three hour workshop, comprising a fact-filled motivational discussion and physical skills, created to empower and protect women and girls who are vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence and, importantly, who feel they have no voice or support. The second is a five hour workshop for seven to 11 year old boys which is specifically designed to build feelings of deep-rooted empathy towards women and girls and, in the longer-term, prevent abusive or violent behaviour.

Since its creation in July 2013, Action Breaks Silence has already taught 18,000 women and girls in India (in Delhi, Mumbai, Lucknow, Pondicherry, the Alleppy coast of Kerala and Pune) FREE OF CHARGE.

The charity also taught for the first time in Soweto, South Africa, in November/December 2015 to mark the United Nations’ 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign, reaching 1,000 girls.