A Swindon charity is stepping up its work to educate teenage girls about the dangers of online grooming amid concerns of an increase in those at risk.
Swindon Ten to Eighteen Project (STEP) has been awarded £8,100 from the government’s Tampon Tax grants and it is preparing to use it on a major campaign to show teens how to stay safe online. Already 60 girls aged between 12 and 14 have been identified as having come into contact with or being at risk of online groomers.
Projects in Wiltshire have received almost £35,000 of the £3.4 million funding distributed across the UK. The money was raised through the levy on sanitary products in 2017/18 and as one the UK’s largest grant giving organisations the government asked UK Community Foundations to distribute the funds to small local projects through its network of Community Foundations across the country.
After an open application round and assessment process, Wiltshire Community Foundation awarded the grants.
STEP is an intervention and mentoring service, based at Nythe Community Centre, that uses group therapy to tackle emotional problems among young people aged ten to 18. Its regular sessions help youngsters to develop confidence and wellbeing. They are referred by schools, health professionals and families themselves.
Project director Johanna Bryant said the new programme is in response to the growing number of young girls she feels are at risk. “We wanted to enhance the service for young women because we feel there is a real need,” she said.
“There are a growing number of young girls being referred to us and there is a common theme in that they are socially isolated and live online lives, where they are at risk of being groomed, sexting and bullying.
“Many of these girls feel they are unpopular and they tell us that they would rather be persecuted and humiliated online than not be there at all.”
She said gaming forums, WhatsApp, Facebook and other media are prime locations for predators. “They are very clever and well informed people, they know what to look out for and they know what key words to use to hook these girls in,” she said.
She said victims are just as likely to come from secure, well-off homes as from families with issues. “The problem is that these girls are isolated by technology because their lives are online and they don’t have one-to-one interaction with anyone at home,” said Mrs Bryant.
“They won’t talk to parents or relatives because they think they don’t get it.”
STEP plans to use group sessions and a series of open days to use exercises, case studies and YouTube videos to help an all-female team of staff, volunteers and peer mentors to get the message across.
“It’s about raising self-esteem and confidence and encouraging these groups to work together,” said Mrs Bryant, who began as a volunteer with the charity 19 years ago.
The charity holds group sessions five nights a week and one on Saturdays and has more than 80 volunteers. The groups use a range of activities including art, drama, sports, games and cooking to entertain and engage the youngsters it works with.
Mrs Bryant said two of the volunteers are former participants and she often sees adults who say their time with the charity benefitted them. “They often say that what we had to say didn’t go in immediately, but it did get there and it stayed with them, that’s quite rewarding,” she said.
Wiltshire Community Foundation chief executive Rosemary Macdonald said: “We are delighted to have been able to support a number of small charities and community groups in Wiltshire as part of the Tampon Tax Community Fund. They are all providing crucial local services for girls and women who are facing issues of homelessness, mental health and hardship. Each one of these projects will make a real difference to the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in our community.
“Unfortunately, like Community Foundations across the country we were oversubscribed for the Tampon Tax Community Fund. Nationally, only a quarter of the 1,500 applications for vital women and girls’ projects could be supported from this stream of funding, highlighting the growing need for funding in this area.”
The Tampon Tax Fund is one of a number of funds Wiltshire Community Foundation manages on behalf of central government, local government, local individuals, charitable trusts and companies.
Find out more about STEP at Swindon.step.org.uk. More information about Wiltshire Community Foundation and its funding projects at wiltshirecf.org.uk.