On Saturday 11th April, a gathering of survivors and campaigners took to Parliament Square in protest against child abuse across the country.
The protest began with the unfurling of banners and signs, with many of those gathered taking photographs and filming in order to challenge the likely lack of media coverage. Survivors of abuse shared their stories to the gathered crowd, megaphone in hand, against the din of the traffic and tourists circling Parliament Square.
With supportive hands holding shoulders and tearful embraces, the gathering formed a circle around those who spoke, allowing a platform of obvious care and security to speakers.
The stories described failures of social services and other vital support facilities to handle and adequately investigate allegations, of solicitors altering statements, of systematic attempts to undermine survivors through accusations of mental instability and of decades-long struggles with the scars – visible and invisible – left by abuse at a young age. A number of those who spoke had suffered whilst in care and had struggled with the lack of confidence and strength to come forward with their story.
Even after that strength had been built up, another level of abuse is added with the struggle to be listened to. Given the amount of time it takes to overcome the chilling effect of abuse – belittling, trauma and anxiety – documents and evidence are often hard to find or have been purposefully destroyed.
One campaigner spoke of a realisation that he could no longer remain quiet after seeing the work of survivors in the UK. He had lived in America for some years, putting the past behind him as best he could. He described how the campaigning is not just for the survivors gathered in Parliament Square or those elsewhere but for those who didn’t survive, who were murdered or pushed to take their own life.
As speeches and conversations were ongoing, the crowd began taking to the road in front of Parliament, blocking traffic with banners outstretched and chants of “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!”
The desire of those gathered to be heard against decades of active silencing was clear. If traffic could be stopped for some time and if passers-by asked what is happening or read a leaflet handed to them then greater awareness would mean progress.
Although the action was unlikely to hit the news, the importance of the event for those gathered the ability to share stories, to meet people who understand their struggle and to build networks of support was clear.
The awareness of shared or similar experiences and the extension of care to those who before Saturday may have been strangers, is at the root of the kind of solidarity needed to sustain wider grassroots struggles for justice.
A vital move towards justice is also breaking down survivors’ fear, which so often hinders their coming forward.
Recent police figures point to a 60% rise in child sexual abuse reports over the last four years, suggesting some progress, but there remain a number of issues.
It must be ensured that the difficulty of coming forward is respected and that the often complex situation of survivors, mentally and legally, is adequately addressed.
As Richard Kerr’s recent interview with Channel 4 highlights, there still remains an insecurity and lack of trust for many survivors who see supposed vehicles for justice struggling to move forward.
This is particularly true in the case of the child sex abuse inquiry which has struggled with infighting, has been disbanded, reformed and has subsequently lost two chairs over their uncomfortable proximity to establishment figures.
The hope is that the bravery of Kerr and of others campaigning on the ground will undermine the helplessness many feel for decades and show that united they can have a voice and push for change.
Taking to Parliament Square, blocking Westminster traffic and marching on the road to Trafalgar Square with a climbing of Nelson’s column instils a sense of strength and unity of purpose necessary to battle the years of powerful interests and entrenched complicity that has contributed to obscuring the truth.
Whilst news coverage highlights the individuals accused, the police investigations and the political events surrounding the child sex abuse inquiry, an important part of that coverage mustn’t be forgotten is that of survivors and campaigners, who are struggling to get to the bottom of the situation across the UK.
It is through the often small actions taken in this struggle that wider coverage is achieved, investigations and inquiries are set up and justice is that little bit closer.
As the speech of one Nottingham campaigner in Parliament Square made clear, survivors will not be satisfied by out of court settlements and financial incentives to end particular cases. A satisfactory conclusion will only come from a large-scale and far-reaching evaluation of the institutions and individuals that have contributed to years of systematic abuse and silencing of survivors’ voices.
Photography by Maria Jimenez.