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‘Our Voices’: hearing from young people affected by sexual violence

This week’s guest post is written by Claire Cody. Claire is a Research Fellow at the International Centre: Researching Child Sexual Exploitation, Violence and Trafficking at the University of Bedfordshire. Claire is Project Lead for ‘Our Voices’, a three-year pan-European project funded by the Oak Foundation. Prior to joining the Centre, Claire worked for Plan International’s Headquarters and was Oak Fellow at the Centre for Rural Childhood where she developed Home: The Child Recovery and Reintegration Network.

‘Our Voices’ builds on work undertaken by a team at the International Centre. The Centre prioritises children and young people’s participation. Recent projects include: working with young people living in gang-affected communities to develop short films related to stopping sexual violence; and supporting young people to develop resources for professionals and other young people about health and sexual exploitation as part of the ‘Be Healthy’ project. One of the Centre’s current project’s, Making Justice Work, uses participatory research methods with young people to understand their experiences of the justice system and to explore how the system could be improved for those affected by child sexual exploitation.


Over the last 30 years, since the introduction of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the children’s rights and participation agenda has expanded, creating more spaces for children and youth to be heard by decision-makers. It is now increasingly common in youth service agencies to find young people on interview boards, or as Youth Advisors ‘youth proofing’ policies and developing resources for other young people and professionals. Young people are frequently asked about their views for the purposes of developing stronger policy, practice and research.


These changes are, of course, positive for some young people, but questions remain. Which young people are benefiting from these opportunities to engage? Whose voices are being heard in these discussions and reports? And are changes actually being made based on what young people are saying? As Kate Brown and Camille Warrington note in their work with young people affected by sexual exploitation in the UK, those who have experienced sexual violence are regularly excluded from opportunities to be consulted or heard. Children and young people are affected by sexual violence in a number of different ways. They may have experienced, or know friends or family members who have experienced, sexual violence; and they may have witnessed, or be living in communities with high rates of sexual violence.


The exclusion of those young people impacts how decisions are made about young people’s lives today and how young people in the future will be identified and supported. ‘Our Voices’ aims to change this by engaging with those excluded young people and ensuring their voices are heard by both practitioners and policy-makers.


The project includes developing and supporting a pan-European network of youth advisors – young people affected by sexual violence. ‘Our Voices’ will listen to what youth advisors feel is important when it comes to preventing sexual violence, support a number of youth-led activities, and collaborate with organisations to develop participatory work with young people. The learning and resources developed will be shared in different ways with stakeholders in efforts to inform better policy and practice.


So why is working with young people affected by sexual violence important? All too often adults and ‘experts’ are the ones who decide what the problem is and therefore what the solution should be. Yet, young people have first-hand experience and they also know what their peers are facing. They know how to ‘speak to’ other young people, which is critical when trying to engage with young people, get their attention and develop relevant awareness-raising information. Often all young people need is a safe space to think about issues in more depth and the opportunity to learn the skills required to take action. ‘Our Voices’ will help young people to develop the communication skills to create and deliver messages via different forms of media, and the confidence to talk with policy-makers about what’s going on.


So why isn’t this already happening? There are some good examples across Europe where this type of work is already underway; however, this is not the case everywhere. The problem is that there is often a tension when it comes to involving young people who have experienced sexual exploitation and violence in debate and decision-making. This tension relates to a young person’s right to participation versus the need for protection. Camille Warrington explains that young people are often perceived and categorised as either ‘victims’ or ‘agents of change’ – but rarely both. This means that those who have experienced different forms of sexual violence – ‘victims’ – are often not included in decisions about their own needs and futures, or discussions about how to help or improve responses for others.


Understandably, when it comes to working with young people who have experienced violence and exploitation, there are concerns about their safety and the need to prevent re-traumatisation. Practitioners working directly with young people are sometimes, quite rightly, apprehensive when it comes to involving young people in participation projects and consultations as they want to protect them from any further harm or distress. This is of course the priority, but the very fact that violence and exploitation often limits an individual’s power, choice and voice makes it even more important that they be provided with spaces and opportunities to exert control and to be heard.


We need more opportunities for children and young people who have experienced sexual violence to get involved in prevention work and have opportunities to participate. This group could benefit from such experiences – particularly if they feel isolated, misunderstood, or are not in school or work. Yet, often, unfortunately these opportunities are not open to them.


This is not to say that engaging with young people on these issues is easy. Ethically there are a number of aspects to consider. In-depth risk assessments should be undertaken to consider the benefits and risks of engagement. Those facilitating any workshops or activities need to be well prepared and screened where possible. Young people need to give informed consent for any activities they’re involved in so they know exactly what they are agreeing to and what will happen to the information they share. Confidentiality should be discussed and agreed upon so that it is clear what will happen if information regarding serious harm is disclosed. Appropriate support should also be available in case young people, through their participation, become upset by any discussions or if it becomes evident to a facilitator that the young person needs further support. Young people’s time must be respected. Activities must fit around other commitments, be beneficial for them, and not leave them ‘out of pocket’.


There is also a need to ensure that young people who have experienced sexual violence do not get over-consulted. Those involved should not be stigmatised or referred to as a ‘victim’, they should be identified in a positive way: youth advocate, peer mentor, volunteer, film-maker, student or however they choose to be represented. This is particularly important if young people go on to become spokespeople for the projects or activities they are engaged in. This too brings up issues around anonymity. Some young people involved in projects will wish to remain anonymous, whereas others want to see their names in publications and want to get involved in dissemination activities. These are some of the issues and tensions that our team are currently considering as we develop ‘Our Voices’.


‘Our Voices’ brings a new international dimension to the Centre’s work on youth participation. The ethical issues described above are compounded by the different legal frameworks in place across Europe; the varied social, cultural and economical contexts; and the multiple languages spoken by young people and practitioners. Work that is participatory in nature is resource intensive and the environment and spaces must feel safe and welcoming for young people. The culture, skills, perceptions and training of adults who take a facilitation role in these situations are central and of course vary. Through the project we hope to learn from and contribute to the ongoing discussions surrounding these issues with the aim of improving and promoting the participation of young people in efforts to prevent sexual violence.

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