Three Girls: what really happened in the Rochdale sex abuse scandal?

Adam White
Molly Windsor, Liv Hill, Maxine Peake and Ria Zmitrowicz in Three Girls - 1

The Betrayed Girls, a documentary featuring the victims and those involved in the case, airs on BBC One on Monday 3 July

One of the most horrifying cases of sexual abuse in modern British history, made more so by bureaucratic incompetence and wilful ignorance, the Rochdale child exploitation scandal opened the floodgates to a litany of stories of young, vulnerable people being systematically preyed upon by trusted older men, with those in a position to stop it turning a blind eye.

Now the minds behind the acclaimed true-life stories The Big C and Five Daughters have turned the Rochdale scandal into its own three-part drama series Three Girls, with Maxine Peake and Lesley Sharpe amongst an all-star cast bringing the saga to television.

When is Three Girls on TV?

Three Girls began on BBC One on Tuesday, May 16 at 9pm and ran over three consecutive nights, concluding on May 18.

Ellie Lightfoot, Ria Zmitrowicz, Molly Windsor and Liv Hill in Three Girls Credit: Parisa Taghizadeh

What happened in Rochdale?

After years of being suppressed by local authorities, the public were finally made aware in 2012 of the grooming, abuse and trafficking of young, predominantly white, girls in the town of Rochdale, Manchester. Gangs of men, predominantly of Pakistani origin, preyed on vulnerable girls by initially offering them drink, drugs and gifts, before raping and prostituting them.

A culture of victim blaming and, some have alleged, an eagerness not to appear racist meant police and social services were often unwilling to take the rumours of widespread exploitation seriously. That many of the victims came from council estates and poor backgrounds also provoked authorities to express little sympathy or interest in helping them.

One girl, known as Girl A, was 15 years old and being driven to various locations to be raped by up to five men a night. When she became pregnant and teachers became concerned at the number of Pakistani men picking her up from school, the girl went to the police.

Lesley Sharp, Lisa Riley and Liv Hill in Three Girls Credit: Sophie Mutevelian/BBC

However, despite her sharing details of her abusers and where the attacks took place, and there being  DNA evidence of her abuse, the Crown Prosecution Service determined her to be an unreliable witness and dropped the case.

Numerous whistleblowers attempted to alert the authorities as to the widespread tragedy on their doorstep, but faced repeated setbacks.

What happened after the scandal was exposed?

In 2012, the nine men involved in the Rochdale scandal were sentenced, a group lead by 59-year-old Shabir Ahmed, a former takeaway driver, who claimed during the trial that the girls in question were prostitutes and the real ringleaders of the scandal. He argued that they exhibited enough business acumen to have won The Apprentice. Nine further men involved in Rochdale grooming were jailed in 2016.

A case review by the Rochdale Safeguarding Children Board described police and social services as demonstrating a “shocking” inability to protect vulnerable young women in the area. Rochdale MP Simon Danczuk said, upon reading the review’s findings: "The biggest issue to come out of this report is that Greater Manchester Police were effectively discriminating against poor, white, working-class girls. So that's not about a failure to spot abuse, that is about actively ignoring abuse that was going on when it was brought to their attention.”

Eight of the nine men who were convicted of a variety of offences connected with a child sexual exploitation ring in Rochdale Credit: AFP/Getty Images​

An inquiry into the history of sexual abuse in Rochdale was announced in 2015, and is estimated to take five years to  complete.

A second grooming gang, based in Rotherham, have also been imprisoned in recent years. Rotherham and its levels of child grooming by predominantly Pakistani gangs mirrored the incidents in Rochdale. A report by Louise Casey, which investigated the actions of Rotherham Council in relation to the abuse, revealed a pervasive culture of sexism and bullying, with whistleblowers suppressed and any mention of ethnicity ignored “for fear of being seen as racist”. One councillor, even after the scandal was exposed, claimed that the men involved had been “fooled” by young girls whose make-up and clothing made them appear older than they were.

One witness told the report: “There was no awareness. The view was that they were little slags. They didn't understand the situation, and thought that the girls were happy, or complicit in it. The sense was that if there had been any offence it had been by the girls, for luring the men in.”

Ringleader Shabir Ahmed Credit: PA

As a result of Casey’s findings, the entire Rotherham Council cabinet resigned, with new elections called. While an initial report from Professor Alexis Jay into the scandal earmarked the total number of victims at 1,400, Labour MP Sarah Champion has suggested the figures are wrong. With more and more victims coming forward, Champion said the figure could be closer to 2,000.

“Rotherham's suppression of these uncomfortable issues and its fear of being branded racist has done a disservice to the Pakistani heritage community as well as the wider community,” Casey wrote in her report. “It has prevented discussion and effective action to tackle the problem. This has allowed perpetrators to remain at large, has let victims down and, perversely, has allowed the far right to try and exploit the situation.”

Who stars in Three Girls?

Maxine Peake plays Sara Rowbotham, a sexual health worker who blew the whistle on the Rochdale epidemic and was repeatedly ignored or silenced by police, child protection services and the local council. Working for the Rochdale Crisis Intervention Team, Rowbotham was tasked with identifying young people vulnerable to sexual exploitation, and noticed a disturbing trend in incidents of grooming and sexual assault.

Maxine Peake and Lesley Sharp in Three Girls Credit: Sophie Mutevelian/BBC

"The powers that be weren't encouraging her, they were shutting doors, they were telling her to be quiet, they weren't interested," Peake told the BBC. "Nobody seemed interested in helping these girls who were in desperate situations. These were really vulnerable young women – the lack of care for them I found mind-blowing."

Lesley Sharpe portrays Margaret Oliver – a real-life former DC who was assigned as witness manager to two young girls involved in the case. She bonded with both girls, and spent four months helping the girls identify their abusers and areas and houses in which they were groomed, raped and prostituted. But despite the fact they identified over 20 men between them, only 11 men went to trial in 2012, and one of the girls was dropped as a witness. The other was used as a witness against just one of the men.

"I feel that had the full facts been heard from the girls, we would have got heavier sentences and there wouldn't be offenders still walking the streets of Rochdale," Oliver told the BBC. Disgusted with the actions of the Crown Prosecution Service, Oliver quit her job as a Detective Constable.

The real-life Sara Rowbotham Credit: Charlotte Graham/Guzelian

Newcomers Liv Hill, Molly Windsor and Ria Zmitrowicz portray three of the girls abused in the scandal, though their stories are believed to be composites of several different individuals. Paul Kaye, Lisa Riley and Jill Halfpenny are among the actors portraying their parents.

Ace Bhatti portrays Nazir Afzal, the real-life chief prosecutor of the Criminal Prosecution Service, who initially overturned the decision by his predecessor in the job to not to pursue the case.

It is not yet known if the abusers themselves have significant parts in the series, but Simon Nagra is credited on IMDb as “Daddy”, the name by which gang ringleader Shabir Ahmed asked the girls to refer to him.

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