Where are the refuges for teenagers abused in relationships?

A study reveals that children as young as 13 are being physically, emotionally and sexually abused in their relationships. We must do more to help them escape

Girls’ relationships take place in their schools, in their peer groups, in their neighbourhoods, how do they ‘leave’ these behind, asks Carlene Firmin.

A study funded by the NSPCC into teenage domestic abuse shows that over 50% of disadvantaged young women have been in violent relationships before their 18th birthday and children as young as 13 are being physically, emotionally and sexually abused in their relationships. Yet we still don’t know how many young people are victimised each day but don’t tell a soul. Assaulted in the shadows, the “private” violence they experience influences their relationships with family, their choices, their health – and many agencies struggle to know how to respond.

Domestic violence is defined as taking place in a relationship between two adults. The historical legacy of this has seen the development of refuges, independent domestic violence advocates and risk assessment structures designed to keep women safe; creating conditions for them to leave relationships safely and regain control of their lives. This progress for women has been essential and rightly continues to seek investment and improvement to save and improve lives.

But what of the violence that takes place in teenage relationships? We are yet to create conditions for girls to regain control and leave violent relationships safely. Women need to leave homes; girls’ relationships take place in their schools, in their peer groups, in their neighbourhoods: how do they “leave” these behind?

Professionals may be more aware that gender-based violence affects teenage as well as adult relationships, but support for specialist responses have not followed this awareness, constraining the choices that girls make and leaving them without the protection they desperately need.

Over the past three years awareness that gang-related violence affects girls has increased dramatically. When I first started interviewing girls associated with gangs, the policy landscape was practically void of references to females, and lacked acknowledgment that girls may be in danger. Fast forward to 2011, and gang injunction guidance contains a specific chapter on young women, and references are made to gang-affected young women in plans to tackle violence against women.

Yet when girls are seeking to exit gang-association or relationships with gang members, we haven’t yet devised a gendered strategy to safely remove girls from such high-risk situations.

When a woman chooses to leave a violent relationship, her decision is influenced by many things, including the belief that refuges provide a safe haven. Without this safety net, how many would choose to leave? When people are the victims of crime they come forward to the police to be protected, to protect others and to seek justice; if they didn’t believe this would be the outcome, would they choose to report?

One 18-year-old girl said to me: “My boyfriend broke my nose when I was 15 and no one helped, no one has ever helped.” How distressing it must be to be aware of the risks you face yet believe that there is no help for you.

From prevention through to exit, children have a right to be protected from violence; the more we learn about the abuses against them, the more those who work with them need to ensure our responses can keep them safe.

• Carlene Firmin is a principal policy adviser at the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England. She is writing in a personal capacity.