This initiative, a development of the national citizen service, was presented as a tool to galvanise social action among Britain's young. What the speech failed to consider was the preventive support that the most marginalised young people would need to even come close to engaging in these types of initiatives. Especially in a landscape couched in a localisation agenda that has yet to show much understanding of the needs of those whose voices aren't always heard.
While the government is willing to centrally fund young people to experience international travel, it has not committed to centrally funding the protection of young people in their own community. The risks of violence experienced by some girls, and the isolation and fear this causes, have yet to be addressed nationwide. Last week, I visited girls in London, Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham – and in each place, the barriers they face to reporting violence, including sexual violence at the hands of their peers, seem insurmountable, at least without intensive support. Girls continue to be reluctant to report sexual violence and services are struggling to respond when they do.
For the young women I work with, feeling safe within their borough or postcode would be an achievement, let alone their city or country. An international citizen service would expect them to fly before they could walk.
Girls who experience sexual violence from their peers in schools or in the local community do not feel confident about asking for help, as they believe they will face repercussions from their attackers that services cannot protect them from. Unless central government recognises the problem, sets standards and provides incentives for education, child protection and health services, local areas will continue to ignore those who need support, and will have no incentives to provide the help young girls need. Without regional and central funding for support services, the cost implications for each local area will be too high to justify.
There are also practical barriers to funding this support at local authority level: young people do not operate along the lines of council boundaries. Take the example of Lisa, 15. She lives in local authority A. The neighbouring local authority, B, funds specialist work to support girls who are raped by their peers, but local authority A doesn't. Lisa was raped by a group of boys from the neighbouring authority, but she can't access a local service safely because A doesn't offer it. But by not providing this specialised service, her local authority is leaving her without support.
I will be reading next week's comprehensive spending review with the lives of these girls in mind. The prime minister stated that "fairness means giving people what they deserve – and what people deserve depends on how they behave". Children deserve to be protected. If they ask for help we should know how to respond, but not all councils are equipped to protect girls from violence. If these girls' behaviour becomes challenging as a result of their experiences, this is due to our failure to protect them.
Fairness would be protecting them in the first place, giving them a chance to be safe and secure, and understanding the risks that they navigate every day. Preventing their victimisation is fair, speaking up for them is fair. Others may look at their behaviour and assume that what is fair is punishment. This may be just for those who have been given a chance. But we are not giving these girls a chance and when we ignore this at a national level we risk local authorities ignoring the issue as well.
If we are to create a fair "big society", those who are unfairly treated should be supported to play a positive role. We need to serve children in need: enabling girls to feel safe and happy before we expect them to serve as national and international citizens. Without this support, we set them up to fail, and there is nothing fair about that.