Reliance on resilience – The characteristics (of the approach) of sexual violence against young women in Amsterdam

Gang rape, sextortion and sexual exploitation are forms of sexual violence experienced by young women and girls in Amsterdam. At the request of the Mayor of Amsterdam, Femke Halsema, the National Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings and Sexual Violence against Children researched how these girls and young women could be better protected. It shows that the key lies in a tailored approach and perseverance.

Researchers working for the National Rapporteur analysed the cases of 10 teenage girls in Amsterdam who became entangled in a web of sex, street culture and violence. Several cases involved sex in the grey area between consensual and non-consensual sex, often including repetitive abuse or rape. The cases involved sex in exchange for money, drugs or expensive clothing, parties in hotels where the girls had sex with several boys and men and blackmail through social media. ‘My request to the Rapporteur was prompted by extremely concerning signals from youth workers and the police’, said the Mayor of Amsterdam, Femke Halsema. ‘Professionals often feel powerless, particularly if a girl does not always consider herself a victim. I wanted to find out what works in such cases, what is the best way to help.’

The study shows that successfully helping these girls is contingent on good collaboration between the various professionals. Examples include youth care, the police and judicial authorities, youth work, therapists, municipalities and, where necessary, youth protection, youth rehabilitation and debt assistance services, or school attendance. If a girl is on the radar, all parties should jointly draw up an action plan and coordinate their collaborative activities. ‘Each case requires a tailored approach, you need to treat every girl as an individual’, said National Rapporteur Herman Bolhaar. ‘This may seem self-explanatory but unfortunately it is not always the case in practice. Perseverance is essential.’

More attention should also be paid to identifying the girls. ‘The study shows that easily accessible assistance can offer a means of reaching out to them’, said Bolhaar. ‘This includes holding workshops on self-image and self-confidence, focusing on participants’ positive qualities, with a culturally sensitive and unbiased attitude. Based on a relationship of trust, the issue of breaking away from the violent situation can be broached.’ Creating positive future prospects, self-motivation and providing a healthy reference framework for relationships and sexuality will also contribute to this.

In February 2020, the municipality of Amsterdam highlighted the approach to tackling sexual harassment and sexual violence against girls and young women as a priority. Under the ‘ROSA Approach’ young women in the most complex situations are assigned a coordinator who liaises with the collaborating authorities. An innovative way of working together is currently being piloted in Amsterdam’s West and Nieuw-West urban districts by the authorities centring on assistance to vulnerable girls at the earliest possible stage . It is aimed at identifying the girls at an earlier stage and promptly deploying and persisting with the appropriate interventions. The girls’ network plays a key role in this process, just as education, which is crucial to developing talent and to increasing positive future prospects for the girls.

In parallel with the National Rapporteur’s study an urban survey was initiated on the various forms of sexual harassment and sexual violence in the city and their manifestations in the various urban districts. This survey shows that attention should be structurally paid to the prevention of victimhood and perpetrator-hood.

The Amsterdam Municipal Executive will adopt the recommendations formulated by the National Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings and Sexual Violence against Children. ‘The study has visualised how incredibly complex this problem is, and that we need to work with many different channels to address it, said the Mayor of Amsterdam, Femke Halsema. ‘Influenced by street culture and social media, sexual violence seems to be increasingly becoming part of mainstream youth culture. However, sexual violence is never acceptable. Sexual autonomy for all Amsterdam girls is our aim.’