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UK universities team up with child sexual abuse inquiry to encourage students' stories

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UK university students who have experienced child sexual abuse are being invited to share their experiences with an independent inquiry.

Image credit: Kitzcorner

The Truth Project is hoping to use firsthand experience and insight in order to improve the way sexual abuse is handled in the future. It wants to examine the extent to which institutions and organisations - from sports clubs to the government - have failed to protect children in England and Wales from sexual abuse.

The aim is to enable victims and survivors of child sexual abuse to share their experiences in a confidential setting. Participants will also be invited to make recommendations to better protect children in future.

The project is organised by The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, and has partnered with seven UK universities to promote its work. The universities are Exeter, Liverpool John Moores, Liverpool, London South Bank, Middlesex, Newcastle and Cardiff, although young people from any institution or none at all can take part.

Michael May, who leads the inquiry's work with young people, believes that university may be the first point in an abuse victim’s life where they feel able to open up about what they have suffered.

“One of the reasons that we’ve gone to universities is that for some young people the opportunity to be away from home for the first time has unlocked in them something, potentially, that allows them to speak more freely,” he told The National Student.

“If they do want to, this (is) a safe space for them.”

He also stresses how important it is for young people to know to know how central their views are to the project, and that they will not be sidelined.

Only 19% of young people are comfortable taking part in a conversation about child sexual abuse with adults they know and trust, according to research already conducted by the inquiry*.

May says: “Younger people don’t talk, often because it feels too difficult for them to talk about something that has happened recently.

“The person that abused them may be around and about in their lives; the incidences might feel too fresh and too worrying to involve family.”

To combat this, the Truth Project will pay expenses for the victim and, if they wish, up to two supporters to travel to any of five locations in the country -  London, Cardiff, Liverpool, Exeter or Darlington - so that the risks of attending a meeting close to home are negated.

At the meeting, they will discuss their experiences with trained professionals.

It’s hoped that young survivors will be able to provide valuable insights for the inquiry, including into relatively new threats such as online grooming.

The inquiry has found that those aged 18 - 24 are significantly more aware of the dangers posed by online grooming than those aged over 65. 18-24 year olds named online as the first place they expect sexual abuse to take place. Inside the family home was deemed the second most likely location for abuse.

There is also a decision-making gage on the Truth Project’s website that is designed to help potential participants think about why they want to talk, if they might be ready, how it might make them feel before, during or afterwards.

Over 8,000 people have now come forward to the Truth Project and almost 2,000 people have shared their experiences so far. The youngest person to do so was 18, and there has been an almost equal split between men and women.

The Truth Project will be open to those who want to come forward about their experiences for at least the next two years.

In the long-term, it will use young people’s experiences to make clear suggestions to the Independent Inquiry on Child Sexual Abuse on how institutions can change their processes and improve the way they respond to and support victims.

May wants to make it clear that those who choose to come forward will be supported, but that “it’s not a therapy-seeking experience” and “we’re not going to help you try and unpack the issues that are at hand.”

He does stress, though, that extensive support will be offered. Support workers will be assigned to each participant, and will be on hand via email, phone and in person both before and after the session.

Part of the work of the inquiry is to try and “change the conversation nationally” about child sexual abuse, according to May.  

He says: “It’s one of the things that causes us to flinch, and to speak in whispers.

“It’s time for us to stop doing that, because silence is the commodity that has allowed abuse to happen. People have been asked to keep secrets for their whole lives.”

May hopes that the Truth Project is “giving a voice to voiceless people.”

He adds: “Truth (Project) will allow us, by hearing from people, to make the best recommendations for change… the real purpose of Truth is to allow the unheard to be heard.

“It’s so important to us that we hear from younger people. We want to make sure that what we’re recommending is fit for purpose for what’s happening now. Young people may well tell us about behaviour on the internet, online grooming, the ways that they’ve been commodified for the purpose of sexual exploitation that we don’t know about yet. And if we don’t know about them we can’t create recommendations that will create change.”

Professor Alexis Jay, the Chair of the Inquiry, adds: “If, as a society, we want to stop children from being sexually abused in future, we need to have an honest conversation about the experiences of victims and survivors.

“I hope that young people can help lead the way. They will bring specific insights into current concerns which will be great benefit to the Inquiry.”

You can find out more about the Truth Project at https://www.truthproject.org.uk, by calling the information line on 0800 917 1000, or by emailing share@truthproject.org.uk

On social, visit @TruthProjectCSA on Facebook and @InquiryCSA on Twitter.

Contact Rape Crisis England and Wales here.

*Populus interviewed 2,065 adults aged 18+ online in England and Wales between 26 and 30 September 2018. Data has been weighted to be representative of all adults aged 18+. All questions included a ‘Prefer Not to Say’ option.

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