LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Sexual exploitation of children has become a "social norm" in some English neighbourhoods, fuelled by explicit music videos and near-pornographic images that are increasingly viewed as normal, a report said on Thursday.
The report by a member of parliament was commissioned after a 2012 sex grooming scandal in the northern town of Rochdale in which nine men were jailed for plying girls with alcohol, drugs and gifts before forcing them to have sex with numerous men.
The case "exposed the systematic rape of children and levels of depravity that shocked the nation," according to Ann Coffey, the report's author, and was followed by similar sex trafficking scandals in Derby, Telford and Oxford.
The cases coincided with a spate of media reports on historic child abuse by ageing celebrities and Catholic priests, prompting questions in the country of 53 million about why the abuse was not prevented and victims not identified sooner.
"Young people are still too often being blamed for being a victim," Coffey said in a statement as the report on the Greater Manchester region in central England was released.
"The age of consent in this country is 16 and adults who prey on children under that age are always wrong. Unless we get a change in public attitudes it will be difficult to protect children."
She said the attitude of some police, social workers, prosecutors and juries could explain why in the past six years there had been only 1,000 convictions out of 13,000 reported cases of major sexual offences against under-16-year-olds in Greater Manchester, a region covering Rochdale.
CAN'T YOU SEE I'M A LITTLE GIRL?
Coffey's report detailed the pressure girls feel, from unwanted attention and touching by older men in the street to social media where a proliferation of sexualised images has led to greater expectations of sexual entitlement.
One schoolgirl in Greater Manchester said she was approached by a man who started touching her ear.
"Can you not see I am a little girl? I am in my uniform," she told him.
Another girl Coffey met described a man taking hold of her friend from behind and stroking her hair.
"It's got to the point where men come up and touch us and try and get us into cars. It's too much," she said.
"I have been concerned about the number of people who have told me that in some neighbourhoods child sexual exploitation had become the new social norm," Coffey said in the report.
"They say there is no respect for girls: gangs of youths pressurising vulnerable young girls (including those with learning disabilities) for sex, and adults allowing their houses to be used for drinking, drug taking and having sex."
Coffey said many children are still being preyed on every day and that there were 260 ongoing investigations into child sexual exploitation in Greater Manchester alone.
In 2012, a body set up to promote the rights of children in England said that at least 16,500 children a year were at risk of sexual exploitation by gangs and groups. It identified the use of mobile phones, social networking sites and other forms of technology as tools for abusers to groom victims.
Coffey said child sexual exploitation had a huge impact on the physical and mental health of children and should be declared a public health priority, like alcohol, drug taking and obesity, so that a more strategic approach could be developed.
(Editing by Tim Pearce)
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