Let them lead the way
By Judy Vredenburgh, Girls Inc. President and CEO
The #MeToo movement has galvanized the country around issues that Girls Inc. cares deeply about and has for a long time: gender inequality, discrimination, and misogyny. For every woman who has experienced sexual harassment and assault, a girl has too. In fact, 1 in 4 girls will experience sexual abuse or assault before she turns 17. That’s why girls’ voices and perspectives must be represented in the current movement.
Girls Inc. provides safe spaces for girls to speak out about their experiences, and we equip them with the knowledge and skills to be healthy, prepared, and informed. We teach girls about healthy relationships, boundaries, consent, and communication. We also help them understand their personal power and their right to defend and stand up for themselves.
Youth have the power to lead change. Just in the last few weeks, we’ve seen students rise up and courageously speak out against gun violence in the wake of the Parkland school shooting. Young people are the experts of their experiences. They have first-hand, front-line knowledge of the issues that often evade us adults. And they have a clear, vested interest. As one Parkland teen declared, “We are losing our lives while adults are playing around.”
“For every woman who has experienced sexual harassment and assault, a girl has too.”
Last year, Girls Inc. established the Girls Action Network, a youth advocacy program made up of high school-aged Girls Inc. girls from across the U.S. who provide valuable insight to help guide our work and advocate on behalf of all girls, lending their voices and perspectives to pressing issues like sexual harassment and violence. Already, they’ve talked with their peers, gathered data from school administrators, and generated ideas about what girls need to be informed and in charge.
Metzli is a senior who attends Girls Inc. of Orange County and a member of the Girls Action Network. Recently she spoke to a group of Girls Inc. donors about sexual harassment and violence, and told us the answer is helping young people change the culture. We know that any attempt to combat sexual misconduct must involve challenging gender norms and stereotypes. That’s how we can begin to create a culture of respect, equality, inclusion and support. And what better group to change the narrative than young people?
Our core belief at Girls Inc. is that every girl has the power and potential to affect change. In communities across the country, we equip girls to become leaders – not someday, but today. Girls Inc. girls have persuaded policy makers to cancel plans for a landfill in Memphis. They’ve helped usher in anti-smoking laws in Alameda, CA. And they helped get Sex Education in Omaha public schools. They are passionate, eager, and feel a real sense of obligation to make the world better.
But they need our help. To tackle the issue of sexual harassment and violence, we need to talk to youth about healthy relationships, power dynamics, boundaries and consent. We must provide them comprehensive, medically-accurate, non-shaming, and LGBT-inclusive sexuality information. If we as adults struggle in our own understanding, how can we expect young people to make healthy decisions and advocate for themselves and others?
“This is a movement and it needs all of us, including our young people.”
Young people also need adults to use their political power and engage in community action. Unfortunately, too many schools are not in compliance with their Title IX obligations to prevent sexual harassment and assault. We must keep Title IX protections strong; we also must advocate for safe and supportive school climates that are conducive to learning; affirming environments that respect the dignity of every individual regardless of their gender, sexual identity, or sexual expression.
The reality is that the majority of girls and boys are doing the right thing. They know that bullying, harassment, and violence of any kind has no place in school and in society. Changing laws and reforming systems must happen for sustainable change. But we cannot overestimate the role individuals play to change the culture that fosters gender-based violence. We need to ask ourselves, how can we empower youth to be the change?
The levees have broken. Women and girls are coming forward to speak truth to power. We are no longer denying that sexual harassment and violence is happening, but are seeking solutions to stop it. This is a movement and it needs all of us, including our young people. They care deeply and want to be involved. But they need the knowledge, skills, and support to make a difference — peer by peer, school by school, community by community.
That’s the work we do at Girls Inc. It is our commitment to our supporters, and importantly, the powerful and remarkable girls we serve.
Join us in this commitment. Sign up for our newsletter (at the bottom of this page) to stay informed about issues affecting girls and learn how you can get involved.
Stop Sexual Assault in Schools Video
‘Sexual Harassment: Not in Our School’ is an innovative video for K-12 parents, middle and high school students, schools, and community organizations. It’s about gender equality in education, students’ protections under Title IX, and much more.
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