Ruzwana Bashir, at 31 years old, has been profiled in Forbes and Business Insider. She is the co-founder and CEO of Peek.com, a San Francisco–based travel company. She took her B.A. at Oxford University and her MBA at Harvard Business School. But before any of that, she was a young British-Pakistani woman in Skipton, England — just 60 miles away from Rotherham, where, according to a report published in August, 1,400 children were sexually exploited between 1997 and 2013, largely by members of the British-Pakistani community. Their abuse was abetted by local government leaders, social-services workers, and law enforcement.
On August 29, following the Rotherham revelations, Bashir published an essay in The Guardian. “When I was 10 a neighbor started sexually abusing me,” she wrote. “Paralyzed by shame, I said nothing.” The essay sparked an international reaction, bringing attention to the many members of Britain’s Pakistani community who have been abused by their own, but remained silent.
Bashir spoke to National Review Online’s Ian Tuttle about her experience, about the culture of shame that perpetuates child sexual exploitation, and about how victims and others can work to prevent future Rotherhams.
NRO: You write in your Guardian essay that you grew up in “a culture where notions of shame result in the blaming of victims rather than perpetrators.” Could you say more about that culture, and what it is like for victims?
RUZWANA BASHIR: A culture of shame around abuse permeates every culture to a greater or lesser degree, as I learnt after writing my piece. I heard from men and women from many religions and nationalities for whom this concept deeply resonated — they ranged from Jews and Catholics to Muslims and Hindus. They were from every continent, from the U.S., Mexico, Germany, Switzerland, Nigeria, India, Australia, Japan, etc. Shame is something we all feel; it’s part of human nature. It’s the feeling that a child can get when she’s last to get picked for a sports team, or that a grown man can feel when his comment during a business meeting is quickly dismissed as being stupid.
In many cultures there are issues of shame around abuse that make it hard for victims to speak up. In the context of my own British-Pakistani community, the issues of shame around abuse are particularly acute. It means that the victims of abuse are silenced, and cannot come forward due to fear of being disbelieved (which leads to being ostracized and their whole family being shunned) or being blamed for what happened (which impacts their family’s standing in the community and their future prospects for marriage). When victims are silenced or disbelieved, perpetrators of abuse don’t face recrimination and can continue abusing children and women for decades.
NRO: You note that when you informed your family of your abuse, their anger was directed at you, not your abuser. What was that experience like? What gave you the strength to go to the police and testify, despite your family’s disapproval? What should others know who may find themselves in a similar situation with their own family or friends?
BASHIR: A primary motivation for me coming forward to testify against my abuser was to ensure that other children would not be abused by the same individual, and hopefully to help other victims of abuse in the community to have the courage to come forward. Within a few weeks of the conviction of my abuser, another young woman in my community revealed to the police that a relative had repeatedly raped her for several years. It had started when she was not yet in her teens, and she came forward because she was worried her younger sister would be next. As victims, we know the pain and suffering that sexual abuse causes, and by coming forward we can seek justice and help prevent it from happening to others.
NRO: The Rotherham inquiry made clear that local government leaders, social-services personnel, and law enforcement dismissed or buried reports of exploitation. You say you know victims who have experienced that firsthand. Why did local institutions fail victims?
BASHIR: Local institutions and the individuals serving within them certainly failed victims in Rotherham and in many other towns across Britain. The reasons are complex and varied according to each specific area, ranging from a lack of accountability and inadequate training for social workers and police to potential complicity on the part of some individuals in these institutions (some even asserted that the abuse was actually consensual, even when involving children as young as eleven years old, who clearly could not provide their consent). We need to reform these institutions to ensure that these failures cannot happen again. There are four immediate next steps:
First, we need mandatory reporting by people of authority when they encounter signs of potential sexual abuse. This includes teachers, doctors, nurses, social workers, and health visitors, who should face criminal liability if they fail to notify authorities of children who are at risk.
Second, we need a single person in each community who is accountable for ensuring that these and other relevant policies are implemented. There are a lot of people with partial responsibility for this problem, but for this to be an effective, coordinated, comprehensive response, we need one individual who takes full responsibility for ensuring that child sexual exploitation is addressed and who can be held accountable for real change.
#page#Third, we need improved support for victims when they come forward. We need a judicial process that recognizes the cost of delayed prosecutions for victims (as they are pressured to retract their testimony) and better counseling services.
Fourth, we need better training of social workers and police to effectively identify victims. The Rotherham report cited that part of the reason for the widespread underreporting of abuse among minority communities is that authorities focused mostly on communicating with male leaders, who ignored the problem. Women need to be included in these conversations, and government officials need to broaden the scope of their inquiries.
NRO: What can the British-Pakistani community do to end the cycle of abuse among its members?
BASHIR: We have an opportunity for leaders in the British-Pakistani community to stand up and speak out about the sexual and physical abuse in their midst. The British-Pakistani community isn’t unique in having evildoers, and the overwhelming majority of its men and women are good people who care about protecting others. Existing community leaders must take responsibility for the fact that the taboos that prevent others from identifying perpetrators and supporting victims enable further abuse. My generation also needs to come forward to accelerate change and to help victims to get the support and justice they deserve. Cultures are not fixed, and these taboos around shame can and must be changed.
NRO: The abuse and exploitation of children knows no boundaries. What can Americans do to prevent these crimes from permeating communities in the U.S.?
BASHIR: The U.S. should follow the same policy changes I would push for in the U.K., such as mandatory reporting, greater levels of accountability for institutions, better training of police and social workers, and greater support of victims. The recent revelations in the U.S. about domestic abuse highlight the fact that abuse is pervasive in the U.S. too, and that cultural norms here need to change as well.
NRO: What resources are available to victims of abuse, in the U.K. and/or in the U.S.?
BASHIR: There are many organizations in the U.S. and U.K. that provide support for victims of sexual abuse.
— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.
RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), the largest anti-sexual-violence organization in the U.S., created and operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline in partnership with more than 1,100 local rape-crisis centers across the U.S. RAINN also operates the DoD Safe Helpline for the Department of Defense.
The Joyful Heart Foundation seeks to heal, educate, and empower survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse through healing and wellness programs, education campaigns, and work in policy and advocacy.
The National Association for People Abused in Childhood provides a range of services to adults who were abused in childhood.
Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Centre provides support and services to survivors of sexual abuse.