Sexual abuse and teenage girls are in the news, which makes the work of the domestic violence charity 'Tender' even more relevant. A group of teenagers is looking at a series of photocopied photographs – a girl crying, an angry looking boy, a lost set of keys – and working them into a story about how violence might flare up between a couple.
Rahsaan Fleming, 14, says he has heard his friends use the kinds of excuses the group is discussing. "You do get guys saying these things," he says, "but I hadn't really thought anything of it before." Fleming is a one of several Year 10 pupils at the Harris Academy Merton, in Mitcham, Surrey, taking part in a drama workshop run by the domestic violence charity Tender on a recent rain-swept Friday morning.
The questions: what does a bad relationship look like? How do you tell your boyfriend you don't like him reading your emails?What do you say to a friend whose boyfriend has been hitting her and then telling her it's all her fault?
The aim: to help young people to distinguish healthy relationships from unhealthy ones. Tender has been using drama as its means of education from its formation in 2003. Beginning with one workshop in a youth centre, the charity has grown exponentially: in 2012, Tender worked in 112 schools and pupil referral units and 52 youth centres around London.
Now, in its 10th year, the work of this small but determined charity has never seemed more necessary after a recent spate of statistics about sexual abuse and intimidation suffered by teenage girls. In 2009, a landmark NSPCC study found that a quarter of girls aged 13 to 17 had experienced some form of physical violence from their partners; a staggering three-quarters of them had experienced emotional abuse, from constant criticism to intimidation.
Coercive behaviour was also a major problem: the study found that girls were often "under constant surveillance" through mobile phones, text messaging and the internet. In 2012, Keir Starmer, the director of public prosecutions, confirmed that girls aged between 16 and 19 are now more at risk of domestic violence than women in any other age group.
On Valentine's Day, the Home Office launched a three-month campaign against teenage relationship abuse, following similar campaigns in 2010 and 2011; MP Stella Creasy also called on parliament to make sex and relationship education, of the sort given by Tender, compulsory in schools as a means of eliminating violence against women. Even the terminology is to change: next month, the Home Office's official definition of "domestic violence and abuse" will be widened to include abuse experienced by girls aged 16 and 17.
Those girls will then have access to services, such as women's refuges, previously denied them. What makes Tender's work so important is that the charity operates at the level of prevention rather than cure. Andre McLeod offers a neat summary of the power of Tender's workshops. Now 22, he got involved with the charity several years ago after leaving prison; he is now a youth ambassador for Tender.
"When I first heard about what Tender did, using drama to talk about abusive relationships," he says, "I was sceptical. But I've seen it work: young people start to think differently about how they are with their girlfriends and boyfriends. I did that myself: I started to look again at some of the things I was doing and saying in my own relationship.
" At the Harris Academy Merton, the group are looking at some of the excuses an abuser might use for violence – from "Treat them mean, keep them keen" to "I hit my girlfriend because my dad used to hit my mum" – and learning that none of these excuses is valid; that every abuser has a choice.
On week four of a five-week programme, the message seems to be sinking in. Two pupils act out a scene in which a boy tells his girlfriend that he's sorry he hit her, but he can't help it. Rating this relationship on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being very good and one very bad, most of the pupils put it at a solid one or two. Olivia Henry-Alleyne, 14, adds that name-calling – an important part of the spectrum of misogynistic behaviour experienced by teenage girls – is a big problem. "You hear girls getting called 'slag' all the time," she says. "I wouldn't put up with it, though.
I wouldn't have put up with it before the workshop, but I definitely wouldn't now." The group's drama teacher, Victoria Bradley, tells me later that at first, not all the children were quite as on message as they seem now. "In the first session, you could see some of the boys looking quite uncomfortable," she says. "You do hear them using bad language about girls, or making out that violence is OK. Since the workshops, there's been a tangible change in the way they behave."
For Tender, that means a job well done. "People can underestimate what a difference it makes for young people just to talk about what a good relationship looks like," says Doireann Larkin, the charity's campaign manager. "But often they've normalised all kinds of strange things. A girl might think that her boyfriend grabbing her by the throat is completely normal. Our job is to show her that it's not."