By Tazeen Ahmad, NBC News correspondent
NBC News correspondent Tazeen Ahmad is also a reporter for Dispatches, an award-winning investigative news program on Britain’s Channel 4. She wrote the following piece for msnbc.com after she and a team of journalists spent a year researching and producing “Britain’s Sex Gangs,” a program broadcast in the U.K.
LONDON - Abby sat in the back of the car twisting her fingers nervously. She pushed her bangs out of her eyes but her hands quickly returned to her lap, clasped tightly together. Her chipped pink nail polish served as a reminder that these are the hands of a schoolgirl – a schoolgirl living a nightmare.
For the last two years, Abby had been repeatedly raped by men far older than she is. She was 13 years old the first time it happened.
“It went on from 7 o'clock, when it started getting dark, to roughly 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning,” she said.
Abby smiled, but the smile never reached her pretty hazel eyes. On this drizzly Friday afternoon, she showed us the places in the northern English city of Leeds her rapists had taken her: fast-food restaurants, hotels, alleyways.
We pulled up outside a children’s playground. Abby was brought here by someone she thought was her friend and then was raped by 20 different men. It was the same park she played in with her sisters. She said being here again made her feel sick.
Abby isn’t alone. The British government estimates that as many as 10,000 children in the U.K. may be victims of sexual exploitation by gangs, and fears the number could be much higher.
The crime has been dubbed “on-street grooming” or “gang-grooming” and refers to actions taken by men to befriend young girls, sometimes as young as 11, using a combination of charm, coercion and blackmail to gain their trust and lower their inhibitions before they sexually exploit them. After the target is “groomed,” the girls are passed on to other men to be raped and gang-raped.
Over the past four years, 14 gang-grooming cases have come to court across the country and 46 men have been convicted.
The problem is feared to be so widespread that Sue Berelowitz, Britain’s Deputy Children’s Commissioner, announced the start of a two-year inquiry into the problem in October of this year.
The newly formed Child Sexual Exploitation – Gangs and Groups Inquiry will investigate the scope and scale of the issue so that police and local law enforcement have accurate data – beyond just anecdotal evidence – to help protect future victims.
One aspect of the issue that has gotten a lot of media attention in the U.K. is the race of the victims and perpetrators. There have been high-profile arrests of men of Pakistani descent who abused white girls.
But Berelowitz emphasized that unfortunately this is a widespread problem. "It would also be wrong for anyone to conclude or assert that this is an issue for one particular ethnic community," Berelowitz told the BBC.
Lord Nazir Ahmed, a leading politician of Pakistani descent, and many other members of the British-Pakistani community, have condemned the crimes and emphasized that an entire ethnic group should not be criticized for the actions of a few. “We have to find a way where we don’t associate the entire [Pakistani] community [with this], we have to put it into context,” Ahmed said.
Tazeen Ahmad talks to Shakeel Aziz, right, a youth worker in the north of England who uses religion to deter men from getting involved with gangs that groom young girls for sex.
On-street grooming follows a pattern. Girls aged between 11 and 14 are most vulnerable and are often targeted by someone close to their own age, sometimes a younger brother or friend of the older men.
The location is usually innocuous – school gates, shopping centers, arcades. It can start with a car pulling up, young guys with charm and good looks engaging a girl in banter. Then cell phone numbers are exchanged and a friendship begins.
The men then work for several months to make the girls believe the friendship is genuine, the relationship meaningful.
“They are investing time and money in girls they target,” said Cat Tatman from Crop, a charity that supports the parents of sexually exploited children.
Once the girls have been won over the exploitation can really begin, she said.
The venues for the next stage vary. Sometimes the girls and their new acquaintances meet in parks and parking lots, often in cheap apartments and hotels – places known in gang circles as “party houses” where the girls are invited to come to “chill."
“It seems like a fun place to go,” Tatman said. “But there is very little of a party going on; often you are the only girl and it’s all men there.”
“Basically, you are the party,” she said.
Chloe, another former victim, met her attackers when she was just 12. The boys she befriended first were just a couple of years older.
Over several months she was introduced to an ever-growing group of men in northern England, many of them older. As a young schoolgirl she enjoyed hanging around cool, older guys with cars and fun places to go, and accepted the gifts of alcohol and cigarettes they offered her.
After a year, one of the men turned on her.
“He got me on the floor and was ripping my clothes off. There was a man holding my feet, a man holding my arms and trying to put his penis in my mouth,” Chloe said. “He was on top of me raping me and other men were stood watching and laughing.”
This was the first of many such horrific incidents for Chloe. Over the coming months she was raped and sexually assaulted by groups of men almost daily after school in parks, cars, apartments and public alleyways. When she refused to go and meet them, they threatened to gang-rape her mother. On one occasion when Chloe decided not to comply, she said her attackers raped her anally to teach her a lesson.
Men talk to Tazeen Ahmad about what motivates men who groom young girls.
I wondered why Chloe and other victims don’t go straight to the police. Tatman from Crop explained that the perpetrators traumatize and terrify their victims and are thus able to manipulate them.
“If you’re a child exploited for two years, you believe they are like gods, you believe that the police can’t stop them, you believe that no one can,” she says.
And where are the victims’ parents in all this?
Keith and Teresa are a professional working couple. Their daughter was sexually exploited for two years from the age of 12. They seem smart and worldly-wise, concerned and devoted. They tell me these qualities were useless when faced with a powerful and sophisticated grooming process.
“They turned her against us, painting us as horrible people who didn’t understand her, whose life’s mission was to prevent her from having fun,” Teresa said. The men coached their daughter to lie effectively and hide the horror of her secret life for many months.
Even though their daughter escaped and is now recovering, Keith and Teresa are still under terrible strain.
Why do they do it?
In the course of our investigation, we found two young men in the city of Sheffield, in central England, who claimed to know gangs that groomed girls.
The men, in their late teens, sipped soft drinks as they explained in blunt terms what motivated the men they knew. I had narrowed it down to three things – kudos from their peers, easy sex and money.
They responded that money was the key ingredient for the men they knew, as many of the girls were being pimped, or sold, to others in the circle.
“A girl could have sex for 30 pounds ($48),” one told me. “Then there’s another one that could go for 10 pounds ($16).”
Seems like an awfully small sum for such a horrific deed.
The British government’s new study hopes to delve deeper into why these men could commit such depravity and how to prevent it in the future. Their initial findings are expected to be published next summer, with a final report by September 2013.