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Three ways to empower girls

Growing up is tough, especially for girls in a hyper-connected world where social media and FOMO (fear of missing out) make those teenage years even more challenging. During those years, their self-confidence plummets, as does their mental health, making them particularly vulnerable to exploitation and self-destructive behaviour.

Statistic in 2016 more than half of Canadian women without a high school diploma were not in the labour force

In Grade 6, 36 per cent of girls say they are self-confident; by Grade 10, that number plummets to only 14 per cent, according to a report by Healthy Settings for Young People in Canada. And approximately 12 per cent of female youth, aged 12 to 19, have experienced a major depressive episode, according to the CMHA (Canadian Mental Health Association). Supporting girls at this critical point in time can help to build confidence and provide them with tools to face life’s challenges. Imagine a City talks to front-line workers and experts about how to empower girls and young women — and why it’s so critically important.

  1. Build self-esteem

Growing up comes with its share of growing pains, but it’s even more challenging for girls who are already at a disadvantage, whether that’s living in poverty, experiencing violence in the home or suffering from the trauma of sexual abuse. “Low self-esteem reduces one’s ability to cope, increases self-destructive behaviour and their ability to plan for the future, which puts them at greater risk,” said Jody Miller, managing director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Peel-Halton, a United Way-supported agency.

That’s why it’s critical to provide supports that build self-esteem in girls — supports that are holistic, non-judgemental and trauma-informed. “We have a classroom for at-risk girls in collaboration with the school board,” says Miller. “We’re able to decrease the barriers they would normally experience in attending traditional school, making things more individualized, as well as offering mental health support that helps keep girls involved.”

But it’s not just getting girls to do their homework; it’s about providing activities that build self-esteem and develop leadership skills, “countering those trends toward self-doubt,” Miller says, “having girls be able to build those supportive relationships, recognizing their own inherent capabilities, including them in decisions, honouring their self-worth, and building upon that.”

  1. Build resilience

Building self-esteem goes hand in hand with building resilience and empowering girls to stand up for themselves and avoid exploitation — whether that’s peer pressure, being taken advantage of by a boyfriend or getting lured into sexually exploitive situations. This can happen to any girl, but particularly those who are experiencing low self-worth.

Once a girl is being trafficked, for example, it takes her on average seven times before she’s able to successfully exit that life, says Miller. “It requires a lot of resources coming together to support that girl.”

That’s why the society’s Empowering Against Exploitation program, funded by the United Way, was created — and is now held as a national model for effective sexual exploitation preventative education, starting with girls in Grades 7 and 8.

Embracing an empowerment approach, this program blends a variety of activities that foster self-reflection, understanding about the issue, and knowledge to help young women identify predators and potentially exploitive situations. It also teaches them how issues like substance abuse can tie into exploitation. “The average age of recruitment is so young, you want to be able to give them the tools [at an early age],” says Miller.

  1. Create opportunities

For girls at risk, completing high school is challenging enough; the idea of pursuing post-secondary education may seem like a pipe dream. That’s why Girls Inc. of York Region, a United Way-supported agency, provides lunch-time and afterschool programs specifically for girls aged 12 to 18 identified as ‘at risk’ by school guidance counsellors. These programs are aimed at building life skills and confidence, from violence prevention to youth leadership, career counselling and opportunities in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

As well as providing academic support and teaching life skills — such as how to open a bank account and what to wear to a job interview — it’s also important to open up opportunities they may have never considered or even thought possible, such as those in STEM. Teaching girls to code and create websites, for example, builds confidence, but also gives them skills that can lead them out of poverty or other limiting situations.

“As women we have fewer opportunities or have to work harder to get treated as equals,” says Barb Wallace, executive director of Girls Inc. of York Region. “Especially with STEM programs, girls are often overlooked, or if it’s hard they tend to give up, so we’re trying to make it really fun and cool … doing it in a large group builds momentum, gets them excited about it, but in a different way than [a traditional classroom].” Providing these opportunities levels the playing field, she says, and “lets them know there are other options out there — hopefully we’re breaking the cycle of poverty in some scenarios.”

So why is it so important to build self-esteem, build resilience and create opportunities?

“These young girls are going to be our future and we need to provide them with opportunities to learn outside of school, to open up their horizons so they become strong, independent members of society,” says Wallace. “[Otherwise] they might fall through the cracks [in the school system]. If they can’t stand up for themselves, they can’t advocate on their own behalf. We give them an opportunity to develop their self-esteem to stand up for themselves.”

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