School-aged girls are involved in prostitution in their thousands, says Barnardo's, and schools have a vital role to play in addressing the problem. Yolanda Brooks reports
Prostitution. It's an evocative word that conjures up many others, such as degradation, exploitation, sex, drugs, disease, violence and crime - words that rarely find their way into everyday classroom discussion. But difficult as the issue of prostitution may be, children's charity Barnardo's says it's time for schools to play their part in keeping girls off the street.
There are no available figures for the numbers of child prostitutes, but given Barnardo's involvement in 10 cities, including Bradford, Birmingham, Bristol and London, the charity is in no doubt that thousands of school-age girls are being abused through prostitution.
Back in 1994, the charity set up the Streets and Lanes project in Bradford to reach out to girls and young women who had been coerced into selling their bodies. At the time, public perception of these girls was harsh. They were simply a problem for the police to sweep off the streets. After listening to the experiences of the women coming into the Bradford project, Barnardo's launched the Whose Daughter Next? campaign in 1998.
Tink Palmer, policy officer at Barnardo's, says that until then people didn't seem to care how or why girls as young as 12 became embroiled in prostitution. But six years on, attitudes have changed. "The campaign ended the idea that children involved in prostitution are criminals. It has changed the public perception of these young people."
Once the charity started working with the young women, one thing became clear - many of the girls involved were highly susceptible to coercion. "We found that that these young women lacked self-esteem," says Ms Palmer. "They were unable to distinguish between what was abusive and what wasn't, and we realised that education needed to happen within the school setting."
While there is no identikit scenario for child prostitutes, girls were telling stories with common themes. Many attracted the undivided attention of an older man who made them feel special. Before long they were losing their ties with family and friends and eventually, through violence, they were forced to have sex with paying strangers.
Now that Barnardo's has raised awareness of the issue it is moving the campaign into a preventive phase with the introduction of a teaching pack, Things We Don't Talk About. The pack, to be used in all-girl sessions, has been produced by Virginia Sheehy, an education project worker at Streets and Lanes.
Even with increased awareness of the problems, she reveals that early attempts to introduce the subject into local schools were met with denial. "We started by contacting schools, and they'd say, 'No, no, we don't have girls like that here'," she says. There was also a problem of timing. "If you are interested in prevention you have to start talking to girls before they are 15 or 16, and this presents a huge problem from an educational point of view."
Ms Sheeh went back to the drawing board and, after the facts were presented at a meeting with Bradford headteachers, the pilot project finally took off.
Once the heads were on board, Virginia Sheehy went into schools to let parents and teachers know what Barnardo's was trying to achieve. When schools finally introduced the pack to Year 8 girls, the response, from teachers and students, was positive. Kath Goulden, who was teaching at Broomwood middle school in Bradford at the time of the pilot, says: "My first reaction was worry, because I didn't know how the children would react and it was quite a strong concept. It was also something I wasn't very aware of."
Early trepidation was replaced by relief as she saw the positive effect the pack was having. "The girls enjoyed it and it gave them confidence. It was about being in control and empowering the girls."
Things We Don't Talk About doesn't focus just on the dangers and horrors of the life of a prostitute; it gives girls and young women the confidence to say no, says Ms Palmer. "It is an incredibly useful vehicle, enabling girls and young women to make informed decisions about their lives, now and in the future." She continues: "It helps them re-enact scenes, look at decisions and discuss them so they can look at what might be abusive."
Things We Don't Talk About encourages girls to take charge of their lives, rather than waiting until it's too late to seek help. It may seem incredible that today's teenagers can be so easily conned, but it happens all too easily. One girl who is a regular visitor to Streets and Lanes says: "The pimps cruise around the schools in their flash cars - they can spot the vulnerable girls a mile away. I didn't realise it was happening until it was too late. If anything can be done to help; if schools can try to warn you - well it's got to be a good idea."
Barnardo's sees the pack as one branch of a web of services involving the police, and social, probation, health and educational services. And it recognises that without the help of bold teachers, the situation will never improve.
'Things We Don't Talk About' includes the video 'A Love Story?' and an audio cassette called 'Susan's Story'. Both deal directly with prostitution. Other sections of the pack look at issues of personal safety and relationships using role-plays, quizzes, posters and worksheets. Extensive notes on running sessions using the pack are also included. 'Things We Don't Talk About' costs pound;55 and is available by calling 01268 520 224.Further information:Information Office, Barnardo's, Tanners Lane, Barkingside, Ilford IG6 1QG. Website: www.barnardos.co.ukThe National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children runs the Breaking Free project in London to help young women escape prostitution. NSPCC regional office, 4th Floor, Yeoman House, 168-172 Old Street, London EC1V 8BP. Tel: 020 7596 3700. Website: www.nspcc.org.uk'Safeguarding Children Involved in Prostitution - a guidance document from the Department of Health', can be downloaded from www.doh.gov.ukscgqualitycp.htm