In the wake of International Women’s Day (IWD) this week, this article focuses on the biggest issues facing teenage girls in Australia at this time. I work at two different high schools, one of them for IWD gave a short talk on assembly about how being a feminist is not a bad thing and that IWD is not about the students at this school but about women in other countries who do not have access to healthcare or education. The other high school I work at organised a whole assembly with local feminist speakers and female leaders to educate and inspire the whole school population about issues currently facing girls and women in our own community. I like the second school’s approach better!!! I’ve also attended camps and programs for teenage girls where a significant part of the story being told by the facilitators is about how good we’ve got it, compared to women in other countries. Yes, we have access to healthcare and education, but are we really satisfied?
In fact, it doesn’t really matter where you are in the world. One in three women currently experience sexual assault and/ or domestic violence in their life lifetime. And it over 90% of these cases the perpetrator is male, and is a familiar person to the victim. And it doesn’t really matter where you are in the world for that statistic to be true. It’s important for teenage girls, and all of us, to be aware of this as a social issue – not just isolated events that effect individuals and are due to the weakness or fault of any particular individual. When people are aware of this more as a widespread social issue, they are more likely to have compassion and empathy for those women who experience sexual assault or violence. When we start seeing this as a cultural issue we problematise the cultural conditioning that enables this rather than problematising the individuals.
In mother daughter programs for teenage girls, we invite all of the girls and women to share stories about their relationships, both romantic and otherwise, with men in their lives. Stories about domestic violence and sexual assault will inevitably be spoken and heard. In some ways this is devastating and heart-breaking that teenage girls hear this as the experience of so many women. In another way it is helpful for them to realise that these are not isolated incidents – and in the words of the second-wave feminists… “the personal is the political”.
Gender issues are inherently political, and another issue which makes this evident is women in leadership. In Australia, as in other parts of the world, women are significantly underrepresented in leadership roles. There are structural issues which contribute to this – differences in paid parental leave for men and women for example. And then there are the entrenched conditioned biases in all of us which mean that women have to work harder and outperform their male counterparts in order to be seen as capable in leadership positions. Girls’ outperform boys in school and more women are enrolled in university education than men. In the workplace, women will often over-prepare and be less willing to take risks than men. So we’re doing better in school and university – where it pays to be “good”, to follow the rules, and to stay quiet about our achievements. But in work and leadership roles where it pays to rock the boat, to challenge authority, and to be visible and self-promote – women fall behind.
In Rites of Passage programs such as Radiant Woman, teenage girls have the opportunity to be truly seen and heard and celebrated for their gifts. They are encouraged to create a vision for their life that includes leadership and service to their community. Their role in the community is seen as valuable.
Girls’ Rites of Passage were traditionally focused on celebrating the onset of menstruation, an event that in our modern culture often is experienced with shame, embarrassment, and even teasing. Australian and international studies have linked girls’ experiences of menarche (first bleed) and menstruation to impacts on the risk of depression, self-esteem, body image, confidence in peer relationships, the confidence to make healthy choices as well as later childbirth experiences. When girls or women think that their normal healthy bodily functions are “gross” or something to be ashamed of, it makes sense that their relationship with their body and self as beautiful and capable of creating life is affected. There are many programs around Australia that offer celebration events for girls around the age of menarche or just before (usually 10-13). Click HERE for info about different Rites of Passage programs available for girls this age.
At Radiant Woman we celebrate the transition from teenage girl to young adult and invite girls aged 14 – 17 to attend. Therefore, we do not focus on celebrating menarche but we do include sessions about menstrual cycle awareness, menstrual health, and healthy relationships with self and body. This is essential for these girls becoming young women to honour themselves and their different needs throughout their cycle. It also empowers them to ask for their needs to be met in their relationships, school, and workplaces.
With these issues facing teenage girls, it is not a surprise that rates of serious mental illness including depression and anxiety are twice as common in young females as young males. For these young people experiencing mental illness, coping with stress and school pressure are cited as major issues. Again, looking at environmental factors instead of problematising individuals is important in creating real change and truly preventing mental illness and turning the tide of these scary statistics. Yes, individual coping strategies are important and helpful. Then true power and resilience come when we as women can open our hearts to the magnitude of the pain amongst us, and work towards real lasting change. As Clementine Ford says, being a feminist is a “way of being a girl in the world that doesn’t hurt”. And it’s not just social issues affecting women. When you can stop focusing on individual blame or merit in general and start looking at social issues and inequalities, we start seeing racial and environmental injustice as well.
Anxious to Awesome is a counselling program for girls which guides them to connect with their own story, family story, and broader story of women everywhere. It then gives her powerful tools to shift and transform feelings of anxiety and fear. Next we look at and face the scary issues in the world at large – for women, for people in poverty and war stricken countries, and for the Earth and environment. She will learn that to open her heart to this pain gives her a kind of power to take action and lead that she didn’t know she had. She will create a vision for herself and her world which inspires and guides her. And she will be celebrated and honoured for her unique gifts and strengths which she is here to contribute.
Click HERE to find out more.