In October 2012, the United Nations launched International Day of the Girl Child to recognise girls’ rights and the challenges they face around the world. As the day approaches, Girls’ Brigade’s Claire Rush looks at how we can help support and empower our girls
‘Send me nudes’ was a neon sign decorating a Missguided fashion store until a petition, created by Girls’ Brigade’s Rachel Gardner and her friend Rebecca Rumsey, and signed by nearly 10,000 people, pressured the store to remove it.
The sign was a clever play on nude lipsticks, but many of us - including young girls themselves - perceived a grimmer, more disempowering and cynical undertone that might encourage sexting. Becky, 21, from 1st Hawkwell Girls’ Brigade (GB) group said: "Living in a culture where there’s a pressure to send people ‘nudes’ is really challenging as it’s now seen as a rite of passage for teenagers."
Once again, this petition - and act of resistance - made the Church aware of the challenging culture with its subliminal messages surrounding young people, which particularly impacts girls.
Wednesday 11th October is the UN’s International Day of the Girl Child, a day to celebrate the potential of girls and raise awareness of the challenges they face simply because they’re born female. In many countries, it’s more dangerous to be born a girl than to be a soldier. It’s estimated that between 113 and 200 million girls are missing from the face of the earth through trafficking, oppression, femicide and gender-based violence. Girls are faced with poverty, poor education, early marriage and patriarchal rituals such as female genital mutilation.
Using recent research and amplifying girls’ voices, what are the key messages UK girls are communicating to us as children’s and youth workers, church leaders and parents?
We often feel like we’re not good enough
"Girls are feeling huge pressure to fit in and be more like what society wants of them so they can feel better about themselves"
One of the most heartbreaking statistics of 2016’s Girls’ Attitudes survey, which captured the voices of 1,627 girls and young women (aged 7-21) in the UK, was that 69 per cent of girls feel they’re not good enough.
Girls are surrounded by a culture that both screams and whispers to them: "You’re not enough." As a result, young people, particularly girls, are becoming increasingly unhappy. In September, The Children’s Society’s
Good Childhood Report found that girls are more likely to be unhappy with their lives as a whole compared with boys, which suggests there’s an interesting gender dynamic at play.
We have more to contribute to the world than our looks
"Girls feel pressure to show off their bodies all the time and it intensifies our desire to be perfect. We’re so much more than our sex appeal"
One of the reasons for girls’ unhappiness is that culture continues to evaluate their worth based on their physical appearance. Worryingly, one third of girls (aged 7-10) said that other people make them believe their value is based on their appearance and 61 per cent of girls (aged 11-21) have experienced people criticising their bodies. Perhaps what’s really horrifying is that this statistic isn’t surprising.
We live in a sexually objectifying culture that treats – primarily – women like commodities, largely ignoring their personality, talents and giftings. This objectifying culture is marketed to be empowering for women by celebrities like the Kardashians, but the truth is it’s fundamentally disempowering for everyone concerned. A subject acts, but objects are always acted on. There’s no power in being a sex object. It will always be a less equal and more passive position.
Girls are made to feel their bodies are projects to be improved upon and are encouraged to self-objectify themselves on social media to gain approval. Popular media encourages girls to conform to a narrow and unrealistic ideal of beauty, striving to attain a flawless, skinny, hairless and taut body. Many young girls are being robbed of their self-worth as they reduce themselves to a collection of body parts to be scrutinised.
We’re seeing the painful results of girls being bombarded by this culture. 47 per cent of girls (aged 11-21) in the Girls’ Attitudes survey said the way they look holds them back most of the time. Sadly, intense appearance pressure prevents girls from doing enjoyable everyday activities like playing sports, speaking up in groups and having their photos taken.
We often feel unsafe in public and online
"It’s hard enough being a girl in this generation"
According to the Girls’ Attitudes survey, 32 per cent of girls (aged 11-21) feel unsafe when they’re out on their own. Girls tell us they experience frequent threats to their own personal safety, often changing their behaviour to avoid them. Threats include intimidation from groups of boys, unwanted sexual comments and other forms of street harassment.
In September, The Children’s Society reported that one in three teenage girls is afraid of being followed by a stranger. Girls often experience the worst sexism and harassment online. 49 per cent (aged 11-21) say fear of abuse makes them less likely to share their views online.
"Hope isn’t just a word; real hope spurs us to action. It fuels us to be so dissatisfied with the status quo that we’ll be the change we want to see in the world"
We aspire to be leaders
"I want to be a leader so I can help to transform the world around me and be a role model for other girls"
Currently, there are more men called John than women of any name running FTSE 100 companies (17 men named John are CEOs or chairs, compared with 7 women). It’s encouraging that, despite these challenges, two thirds of girls aspire to be leaders. According to the Girls’ Attitudes survey, the current inequality in leadership makes half of girls feel more determined to succeed. Sadly, while girls identify leaders as brave and powerful, they struggle to see themselves in this way, identifying these qualities as primarily masculine characteristics.
We’ve heard the voices of young people. How can we, as a Church, empower a generation of girls to live in gospel hope?
Rather than paralysing us, these statistics and the honest voices of girls should mobilise us to respond to their needs, concerns and aspirations in relevant ways. Hope isn’t just a word; real hope spurs us to action. It fuels us to be so dissatisfied with the status quo that we’ll be the change we want to see in the world. But we need to put hope into action. And we - children’s and youth workers, parents and church leaders - have a key role in doing this.
Listen to the voices of girls
Many of the statistics and messages being communicated by girls are uncomfortable, but, by listening to girls, we can address the barriers they face to achieving their aspirations, and support them to experience life to the full (John 10:10). As youth and children’s workers, we have to honestly reflect on whether we’re contributing to the barriers, injustices and obstacles these girls have identified. Are our groups safe places for girls? Do we allow sexist comments as banter? Do we reinforce gender stereotypes? Are we giving girls and boys equal opportunities to contribute and lead?
We can also be more intentional about listening to the hopes, concerns and frustrations of the young people around us, including girls. By giving girls a platform to tell their stories, whether in our groups or online, we’re improving their confidence and demonstrating that we believe their experiences and opinions are of value. But equally importantly, we’re also opening ourselves up to being inspired and transformed by them.
How are you listening to the voices of the girls around you?
"In many countries, it’s more dangerous to be born a girl than to be a soldier"
Cultivate identity capital
Girls’ Brigade believes there’s a need for a countercultural, hope-filled narrative for girls. With the deficit of self-worth and self-esteem among young people, particularly girls, our anxiety-inducing culture - a toxic mix of consumerism and liberal capitalism - is draining all their identity capital reserves. Identity capital means that each person knows who they are and whose they are
(Ephesians 1:11-12). In other words, we need to enable young people to understand that they’re God’s image-bearers with inestimable value and unchanging worth, and created for a mighty purpose. With the barrage of toxic messages in the media, it’s not enough to simply aim to empower girls with body confidence. We need to be intentional about cultivating identity capital in girls from a very young age by helping them encounter the living Jesus in relevant and relational ways.
GB Ministries believes in the value of gender-specific groups and has developed faith-based fun and innovative programme materials for girls, specifically helping them to build their self-esteem in Christ each week. In local GB groups, women leaders are equipping girls to navigate this confusing culture, as well as helping them cultivate courage and resilience in fun and safe environments. Over the past 124 years, that’s five generations of women investing in the next generation of girls.
How are you cultivating the identity capital reserves in young women?
Build up emotional and spiritual resilience
Over the past year, a number of surveys have revealed the critical state of young people’s mental and emotional well-being. In the
Girls’ Attitudes survey, 52 per cent of girls (aged 7-21) told us they wouldn’t seek help because they’re uncomfortable talking about their feelings. But young people want us to support them better. In Youthscape’s Losing Heart survey, the top issue that 100 11-19 year-olds wanted to talk about was mental health.
We, the Church, need to hear that. Are we breaking the stigma that surrounds mental health? How are we addressing issues such as self-harm, consent in relationships, stress, pornography, sexuality and depression in our youth groups? Perhaps fear of being ill-equipped may hold you back, but there are many brilliant organisations like SelfharmUK, Romance Academy,
Koko and Diverse Church that can provide innovative session materials for you to use.
Are we addressing some of the relevant issues young people are facing in our youth groups or are we avoiding them?
Let girls lead
Despite these statistics, many women in the UK are refusing to be victims of the status quo. Girls are generation-shapers, hope-bringers and transformers of culture, and we need to nurture this new generation of leaders.
As a Church, we also need to continue to demonstrate by example that women and men are called to make an important and equally valuable contribution. We can do this by equipping and releasing the God-given gifts of all the Church. Let’s lead by example and provide relevant leadership-equipping programmes for older girls, like The Esther Collective (theesthercollective.org).
For some of us, this will require intentionality, especially if you’re a male leader. For many guys, it’s natural to raise up and invest in other guys as leaders. But we also need to create space for girls to lead as well as equipping them to do so. By acknowledging that young women can lead and inspire us, we’re recognising that God uses all genders and ages in his mission of restoration on earth.
How are you acknowledging that young women can lead and inspire us? Are you intentional about raising, mentoring and profiling women into leadership roles in your youth group?
Don’t perceive this as a ‘girl problem’; it’s our problem
When half the Church is limited and losing confidence, everyone is affected. These statistics and prevailing attitudes also hurt boys and men.
Our popular culture is also communicating a toxic version of masculinity to boys. They are learning through the media and the proliferation of pornography to view and treat girls as sex objects. As a result, a girl’s value is only perceived by some boys in terms of how attractive she is to the opposite sex and her ability to meet their sexual needs. This is then reinforced in behaviour.
A report from the House of Commons Women and Equalities committee last year revealed that two-thirds of girls are sexually harassed ar school. Schools, families and the Church also need to equip boys to navigate this confusing world, and to view and treat girls with respect.
Men have an important role to play in the way they speak and treat the girls and women around them; you’re important advocates. If you’re a guy, here’s a few questions to ask yourself.
Are you conforming in your words and actions to culture’s message that a woman’s value is based on her physical appearance? How are you celebrating and recognising the bravery, strength and gifts of the women around you?
Stand with, and for, girls
Girls encounter structural and cultural inequalities. Underlying all these issues is the impact of poverty on young people’s lives. The 2017
Good Childhood Report suggests that more than 2 million young people in the UK are living in households where parents are struggling to pay the bills.
Much needs to be done so that girls don’t feel pressured to adapt their own behaviour and aspirations to navigate an unequal society. Instead, society needs to change to meet girls’ expectations and support them in fulfilling their potential. Let’s continue to equip young people to be a voice of hope, to challenge injustice, and to build a fairer society in the UK and across the world.
Ultimately, we need to work together to cultivate a culture of worth for everyone, and to recognise and act on the truth that each of us has equal value, regardless of what we look like or what our gender, age, race or ability is. This is the hopeful message Jesus brought and he’s calling us to follow in his footsteps today in our homes, our youth groups, and wherever else he has placed us.
Let’s enable girls to be the generation-shapers, hope-bringers, and transformers of culture God created them to be.