Abuse and exploitation: the need to educate our young people

05 Sep 2013
by Claire Windebank

Framework recognises that vulnerable young people are at increased risk of early sexualisation, exploitation and domestic abuse – all of which could cause them considerable long-term problems in their adult lives.

Sadly, many of the young people we support have already experienced one or more abusive relationship.  My staff and I recognise that, in order to protect them from harm in the long-term, we have to take positive action in the relatively short time they are with us to educate them about these issues – to explain clearly what kinds of behaviours constitute a healthy relationship and what behaviours are unhealthy and abusive. 

That such education is necessary at all may be surprising to many people.  Why, they may ask, is it necessary to explain to a young woman that her boyfriend’s violence, intimidation and sexual abuse is not normal and not acceptable? 

Sadly, being in an abusive relationship is often believed to be more preferable than being alone. This may be shocking but, unfortunately, it is true.

Claire Windebank, Operations Manager for Young People

The answer is that many of the young people we support in our accommodation services and in the community have come to believe that such things are normal. They may, for example, have grown up in a home where violence and abuse were routine. Some will have talked to their friends about the relationship that they are in only for them to share similar experiences - thus normalising abusive relationships even further.  Some, as a result of their experiences, may have such a low level of self-esteem that they feel unable or unwilling to speak out against what is happening to them. 

The Government takes the issue of abuse by and against young people very seriously - as evidenced by this hard-hitting poster campaign.

Sadly, being in an abusive relationship is often believed to be more preferable than being alone. This may be shocking but, unfortunately, it is true. Vulnerable young people (girls particularly) are seeing their future potential eroded by violence, sexual abuse and controlling behaviour at the hands of their partners – people they often claim they are in love with. Some of our young men, on the other hand, are exhibiting unacceptable behaviours simply because they don’t know any better – because their peer groups behave in the same way and they have no other example to follow. 

In response to these problems my staff and I have developed a programme of educational sessions designed to empower the young people we support to expect more from their partners and to avoid the potential long-term harm caused by an abusive relationship. Our sessions, the first of which was delivered this week, included exercises looking at why people don’t leave an abusive relationship and identifying the behaviour that is abusive in a relationship.  We also ensure that our young people are fully supported after the session either by working with our own support staff and or signposting to other agencies.    

If you are in any doubt about the need for these sessions I’ll leave you with the thoughts of one 18-year-old woman who I spoke to this week. 

“My previous boyfriend was very controlling of me and would force me to do things I didn’t really want to do...He would just look me up and down and demand sex... I thought this man loved me and I wanted to please him... We had some things in common and he treated me well at the start. I thought that if I did what he wanted then he would stay with me. 

“Looking back the reason I never said no to him was because I was too shy and didn’t have the confidence in myself to say no. I wanted him to be happy and wanted him to make the decisions for us. Looking back now it makes me feel disgusted but at the time I thought it was normal. My friends had similar experiences with their boyfriends and I didn’t want to be alone. After attending this session I know that these things are not normal and I think I will be more confident and will stand up for myself more in the future.”

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