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Month: September 2010

Wanted — more girl champions

Women hold up half the sky. — Chinese Proverb.

Don’t you just love it when you read a book that changes the way you view the world? Last year for my 40th birthday Melinda Tankard Reist bought me a copy of  the Pulitzer-prize-winning Half The Sky. This brilliant work has been described by the publishers as a “call to arms against our era’s most pervasive human rights violation: the oppression of women and girls in the developing world”. I became so passionate about bringing an awareness to the plight of girls in the developing world and to how simple some of the solutions are that I immediately incorporated some of the messages into our Enlighten Education workshop on feminism as it applies to this generation of girls: Real Girl Power (for more on this workshop, you may be interested in this news article: Putting Girls Issues Back on the Radar).

One of the key resources that informed this workshop was Plan International’s brilliant “Because I am a Girl” campaign. Yesterday I was fortunate enough to have been invited by the forward-thinking team at Mercer (a global leader in financial services) to attend the launch of Plan’s new paper: “Because I am a Girl, The State of The World’s Girls 2010. Digital and Urban Frontiers: Girls in a Changing Landscape”. Plan is producing one girl report each year in the run-up to 2015, the target year for the Millennium Development Goals. Each report provides tangible proof of the inequalities that still exist between boys and girls. Mercer is supporting Plan in its life-saving work and has also been using me to present to executives who are involved in their truly vibrant Women in Leadership Network. Isn’t it exciting to see corporations involved in partnerships that make a real difference to the lives of not only their staff but to those who have fewer opportunities?

The launch started with a reminder about why unleashing women’s potential is not only the right thing to do, it is also the smart thing to do in order to combat poverty:

This year’s report was particularly of interest to me as it examined the impact of both urbanisation and technology on young women — issues we are also struggling with at a domestic level. A full copy of the Executive Summary may be downloaded here: Because I am a Girl – The State of the World’s Girls 2010.

What are some of the key findings?

Bright lights and big hopes — adolescent girls in the city:

For the first time in history, there are more people living in cities than in rural areas. This has the potential to lead to increased education opportunities and access to better health care services, and it is delaying the age at which girls marry. However, girls in cities are at particular risk of exploitation, poverty, overcrowding and physical and sexual violence.

I was particularly moved by the manifesto street girls and former street girls put together when they met at the 2010 Street Child World Cup in Durban, South Africa:

We, the girls living and [who] have lived on the streets and those of us in shelters from seven countries, the UK, Tanzania, South Africa, the Philippines, Ukraine, Brazil, and Nicaragua, have the following rights and we want them respected:

The Right to live in a shelter and home, The Right to have a family, The Right to be safe, The Right to be protected from sexual abuse, The Right to go to school and get free education, The Right to good health and access to free health services, The Right to be heard, The Right to belong, The Right to be treated with respect and decency, The Right to be treated as equal to boys,  The Right to be allowed to grow normally.

Adolescent girls and communication technologies — opportunity or exploitation?

The report identified several reasons why technology is important to girls. These included using technology as a tool to connect, educate, gain employability skills and increase knowledge about health issues such as HIV and AIDS.

Just as we are finding here, however, there is also a dark side: 79% of girls said they did not feel safe online, almost half the girls surveyed said their parents did not know what they accessed online, only a third of girls said they knew how to report danger or something that made them feel bad online, and almost 50% said they would go to meet someone they met online (this is particularly troubling in the developing world, where many young women are tricked into the sex trade by the offer of jobs overseas). Cyber-bullying was also a growing problem.

Moving forward

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Two young women who have been assisted by Plan International in Ghana — Gifty and Aisha — were at yesterday’s launch. They both spoke to me about the positive impact intervention has had on their lives. Education works. Investing in girls works.

Plan’s report concludes with a powerful call to action:

We can all contribute. We need to listen to adolescent girls’ views and ensure that their voices are heard by decision-makers. We need to learn from what they have to say. We need to include them in research, in planning and in policies. We need to invest in girls’ skills and ensure that they have access to information, the skills to use it and the power to protect themselves. And finally, we have shown that what many of them have achieved in the face of adversity is truly remarkable. We need to celebrate these achievements and ensure that all girls, wherever they live in the world, have the same chances in life as their brothers.

Girl Effect, an organisation that also does incredible work with young women in the developing world, tells it how it is on their website. The  launch page is emblazoned with the following:

The World could do with a good kick in the pants. Agree?

Yep.

So, what am I going to do to make a difference? I am going to continue, and in fact enhance, the workshops we run that inform girls about these important equity issues. I am also going to strengthen the work I do here in Australia with our Indigenous girls — many of these young women are living lives not dissimilar to those girls in the developing world are living, which I find deeply shameful. I am currently coordinating diaries with the amazing Cathy Freeman and hope to work with her on Palm Island with Indigenous girls. Cathy is a true champion of girls and if you are not yet aware of the work her foundation is doing in this area, do investigate.

I would like to also encourage you to act now too. Plan are calling for the United Nations to declare today, September 22nd, to be International Day of the Girl. A simple first step? Sign their petition. And then find out more about the numerous organisations that work to turn oppression into opportunity for women worldwide. Donate. Share this post with colleagues. Educate your girls about the plight of their global sisters.  The following video from Girl Effect is also well worth showing and using as a stimulus for discussion – perhaps girls might be asked to produce their own manifesto of rights they think all girls should have respected?

I have found that girls here do care — deeply. In fact, I believe they yearn for something that matters more than just the right jeans, the hottest boyfriend and the latest celebrity that has gone into rehab.

By not discussing the real issues, we do all girls a huge disservice.

Slam! (Poetry that has street cred)

My background in education has included teaching English and heading up the English faculty across a dual-campus school. Perhaps this helps explain my enthusiasm for encouraging young people to twirl words – to invent, create and use language to explore their world. Lately, I have been particularly inspired by slam poetry and have found many young women I work with inspired by it too.

poetry_slam_10_little_logoWhat is a “poetry slam”?

poetry slam is a competition at which poets perform original work (or sometimes the work of other poets). Members of the audience judge these performances — not only on the content but on the poets’ delivery and passion as well.

Slam poetry is often political or offers commentary on social issues. I find slam poetry the most powerful when it explores gender injustices and presents as a spontaneous outpouring of raw emotion.

Slam is often more accessible for young people than traditional styles of poetry, as the vocal delivery is often like that found in hip-hop music, which many already enjoy.

In a 2005 interview cited on Wikipedia, one of slam poetry’s best-known exponents, Saul Williams, said:

[H]ip-hop filled a tremendous void for me and my friends growing up… The only thing that prevented all the young boys in the black community from turning into Michael Jackson, from all of us bleaching our skin, from all of us losing it, just losing it, was hip-hop. That was the only counter-existence in the mainstream media. That was essential, and in that same way I think poetry fills a very huge void today [among] youth. And I guess I count myself among the youth.

The following slam poems are a few of my favourites that explore feminist issues. I urge you to not only share them with the young people in your life but to use them as inspiration and encouragement to get them slamming! Organise a slam competition at your local school, film the entries, email me and I will share some here.

You might also like to encourage students to enter the Australian Poetry Slam competition, which is being held right now. Information regarding heats may be accessed at the organisers’ new site: www.australianpoetryslam.com.

Long-term Enlighten supporter Kate Wilson slams “Sisterhood”:

Katie Makkai, a veteran poetry slammer, defining the word “pretty”: please note, Katie does use offensive language at one point.

I also have to share the following slam by Taylor Mali, “What do teachers make?” One for all my fellow educators who truly understand the value of the work we do.

Babes, Bitches . . . and Blooming Awful Journalism!

This week, a blog post about the media’s sexist stereotyping of women in sport has got me all fired up, so I am sharing it with you here. There is plenty of research to show that when girls are involved in sports, it is a real boost for their self-esteem and body image, so it’s an important issue.
rachel hansenThis post is by our talented program manager for Enlighten Education in New Zealand, Rachel Hansen. Rachel is an experienced health and wellbeing educator who has a first-class honours degree in Psychology and a Masters degree in Criminology from Cambridge University (UK). Her research has focused on youth development, youth offending and women’s health.

Reading the Sunday newspaper over a coffee is an indulgence I absolutely love. Not being an avid sports fan, I usually give the sports section a miss. But last Sunday I picked up the Sunday Star Times sports section, because one of the issues I discuss with girls through my work with Enlighten Education is how the media portray women in sport. I had read research on the media’s treatment of women’s sport but I was optimistic that surely the situation couldn’t be quite that bad.

So I opened the 16-page sports section and started flicking through. Men’s rugby, men’s soccer, men’s rugby, men’s car racing, men’s rugby, boys’ soccer, men’s rugby. “Where are the women?!” I spluttered loudly, spilling my coffee in indignation. Finally . . . on page 14, women got a full page devoted to them. Yes, a full-page feature article on the US Open Women’s Tennis.

But don’t start celebrating. The headline?

Picture
Babes, Bitches and Bickering
And beneath the atrocious headline? Photos of five of the top women in the US Open, with a one-word description — go on, I invite you read this out loud using your best Grammy Awards presenter voice:
  • Contestant: Ana Ivanovic
  • Bitchiness: Elena Baltacha
  • Entertainer: Jelena Jankovic
  • Nicest: Caroline Wozniacki
  • Soviet Tank: Svetlana Kuznetsova.

After throwing the rest of my coffee across the room (OK, that’s dramatic licence), I started to read the article, which proceeded to illuminate for me why these sportswomen were awarded their titles above.

I soon realised that Ivanovic was not awarded the Contestant title for her tennis prowess – oh no:
“’Who’s the prettiest?’ she says,  buttering a roll, her slim wrist holding up a Rolex watch the size of a child’s fist. ‘Who’s the most popular, the most fashionable, who’s getting the most coverage?’ She smiles sorrowfully to acknowledge that, when it comes to these contests, she tends to do quite well.”
Ivanovic wins the Contestant award because she is winning the beauty and popularity contests.

The Bitchiness award seems to have stemmed from Elena Baltacha‘s comment:
“I wouldn’t go out of my way to start a fight, but if I feel someone has done or said something on purpose, then I will react. I wouldn’t just take it, I would defend myself.”
One comment seems justification enough to make a derogatory generalisation about a whole personality trait.

After being described as a “truculent teen”, Jelena Jankovic is awarded  the Entertainer trophy after stating:
“We are entertainers, as well, on court, in our own sporty way . . . We entertain the fans, they pay money to watch us play.  It’s nice to see girls who are feminine, who dress nice.  Maybe in the past there were only a couple of players like that, but now players pay more attention to it. I was one of those painting my nails different colours and matching them to my dress. If you are in a nice dress you can play better, feel better. More comfortable and confident.”
This statement sounds as though it comes straight off a Sporty Bratz doll’s packaging.

Despite being the number one seed for this event, Caroline Wozniacki, winner of the Nicest title, gets only the briefest of mentions:
“Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki . . . is one of the nicest in the top 10.”
Because really, what interest would there be in a “nice” tennis player when there are beauties and bitches to discuss? None whatsoever, it seems.

And Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova obviously doesn’t live up to the sexiness factor necessary for women to play in the US Open, taking out the Soviet Tank award.

To further my dismay, this derogatory and juvenile article was written by a woman. Numerous quotes are scattered throughout this Sunday Star Times article that portray the women as simpering bimbo fashionista bitches. Strangely enough, despite not once mentioning anything about any talent any of the tennis players have, the journalist at times seems to be trying to take a feminist perspective regarding the discrimination that abounds in the women’s tennis circuit — although she clarifies that the issue is definitely “not the most pressing in feminism today”. It is often women who are propagating the sexualisation and objectification of women.

The journalist’s claim that most of the world’s top female tennis players consider their on-court fashion their primary source of “empowerment” is a ridiculous statement. What research is she basing this on? Whether it’s “brilliant exploitation of a sexist media” or “a complete sellout”, this journalist is part of it.

The article portrays the world’s top tennis players as if they were Bratz dolls, characters in an imaginary world of bling and beauty, the tennis a mere hobby on the side. In fact, I checked in on the Bratz website this morning and realised that the Sunday Star Times article was just a grown-up version of Bratz Chatz. (Note to the uninitiated: Bratz dolls are marketed at girls age 2–11.  There are five scantily clad, heavily made-up Bratz dolls, each with their own “personality” and “passion for fashion”.) Let me share with you this morning’s inspiring Bratz Chatz that occurred between the doll characters this morning:

Sasha: Dancing is sooo much easier for me than sports. I love watching Cloe play [tennis] but it is so hard for me in gym. I have to sing to get through it!
Jade: Yeah, I would much rather watch sports than play them but I get plenty of exercise walking around the mall every weekend, lol!
Yasmin: Cloe convinced me to play tennis with her and I totally fell in front of Cloe’s very cute coach. I don’t know how she focuses on the game!…

So our young girls play make-believe with sexy fashionista bimbos and the media continues the conversation for our real-life tennis heroes.

Thank you, Sunday Star Times, you made my search for discriminatory reporting of sport far too easy and time efficient. I am horrified that it is 2010 and demeaning and offensive drivel like this is the only mention of sportswomen in New Zealand’s biggest newspaper of the week. I am heartened only by the fact that it was not a New Zealand journalist. Yet why the need to import this from the UK?

I hope you will join me in emailing your dismay to the Sunday Star Times editor: david.kemeys@star-times.co.nz.

(Note: I was unable to link to a free version of this article online, but it appears to be an edited version of an article that appeared in the Guardian UK on 19/06/10.)

Media stereotyping of women in sport is universal, affecting not just NZ and the UK but Australia, too. I’d love to hear what you all think about this issue. To see some other perspectives, there is the guest post Women in Sport Hit the Grass Ceiling by Australia’s federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, and I wrote about this previously here: Sport: The Real Winners and Losers — Danni.

Beyond Cyber Hysteria – Part 3: Dealing with more difficult truths

Please note: the blogging platform I use, Edublogs, filters out words like p*rn, hence the need to use asterisks. If you wish to comment, please use symbols to avoid your text being automatically deleted.

In a previous blog post, “Teens and P*rn, dealing with difficult truths”, I posed the following question: ” What messages will this generation receive about desirability if their emerging sexuality is largely shaped by p*rn?” P*rn is nothing new, but it has never been more accessible than it is today, thanks to the internet. In the excellent 2009 UK television series The Sex Education Show, three out of ten high school students interviewed said they learned about sex predominantly through viewing p*rn*graphy on the internet and mobile phones, or in magazines. However, recent Australian research conducted by the Family Planning Association provides some hope. This survey found:

  • Friends – Friends were the most commonly used source of information for young people, with 43% of respondents calling on their mates for information.
  • Sexual activities – 50% of young people turned to their friends for information, while only 20% sought advice from schools and parents.
  • Contraception – 48% of adolescents went to doctors for information; 38% went to friends first.
  • The Internet – 30% of young people combined the internet with traditional sources for information about sex.
  • Schools & Parents – 25% of the respondents turned to these sources for information.

Dr Deborah Bateson, Medical Director for Family Planning NSW said “The results show that young people seem to have an appropriate level of scepticism when it comes to using the internet for sexual health information.” The survey found that although young people are turning to the internet as a source of information, only 21% trusted the information they found and only 16% of adolescents trusted what they saw or read in the media.

It is pleasing to see young people may be cautious about believing all they see online. However, even if they don’t view internet p*rn as a source of information about sex, surely viewing it still shapes their impression of what a sexual relationship may look, sound and feel like? And I have to say, I am worried. I have come out in the media before expressing the need for caution and remain concerned that adolescents are having their sexuality shaped by internet p*rn, which is more often than not  focused solely on male pleasure, often degrading to the female participant and, indeed, often violent.

Even very small children may inadvertently stumble upon the most graphic of sexual images. When my daughter Teyah was 8 years old she searched Google images for a picture of a nun for a school project and was faced with p*rn images of women being abused in nun outfits. A few years later she accidentally typed in “hotmale” instead of “hotmail”. If you are looking for the Aussie website aimed at teens that claims to be “empowering girls worldwide”, girl.com.au, and forget to add the “.au”, you will hit the awful  girl.com, which features explicit images of pre-pubescent-looking girls posing naked.

The reality is that the proliferation of porn on the internet is not going away anytime soon, as it is such big business. Steve Jobs, the genius founder of Apple, caused a controversy when he was cited as saying he dreams of an internet devoid of porn. He is reported as declaring to a critic: “You may care more about p*rn once you have kids.” Apple does not allow applications that depict overtly sexual content but of course are powerless to stop what appears on the world wide web.

The Australian government’s report Adolescence, P*rn*graphy and Harm addresses some very real challenges parents and educators face in its conclusion:

Though restricting exposure will remain a priority, an over-reliance on this approach to protect against the perceived harms of p*rn*graphy is problematic as it fails to recognise the realities of ready availability and the high acceptance of pornography among young people. Moreover, it fails to examine the holistic way in which adolescents’ sexual expectations, attitudes and behaviours are shaped in our society and the complexity of factors that give rise to the cited harms. Protecting young people necessarily requires equipping them, and their caregivers, with adequate knowledge, skills and resources (e.g. media literacy; sex education; education about pornography and rights and responsibilities of sexual relationships; safe engagement with technologies) to enable successful navigation toward a sexually healthy adulthood, as well as tackling factors predisposing to sexual violence.

n229345874979_7801The internet can also be host to sites that are “temples to human cruelty”, a term Melinda Tankard Reist used to describe Facebook pages she alerted us to that depicted girls others viewed as “sluts”. Other pages I have seen that sickened me included one where people posted pictures of animals they had abused, and a page named “It’s not rape if you yell surprise.”  The image to the left is one taken from a Facebook page where members could discuss how they had used physical violence to “shut their bitch up”. A relative newcomer on the social networking scene is Formspring. Many parents are already telling me this site, which allows participants to ask others anonymous questions and post anonymous comments, is particularly frightening. It is very attractive to many teens as it is by its very nature confessional — “Ask me anything . . .”  Young people are often drawn to the notion of sharing secrets. However, most of the questions I have seen asked are really just designed to shock and hurt: “Are you really a slut, because everyone at school thinks you are.”

At my company, Enlighten Education, where we discuss a wide range of topics with young women in schools, including cyber safety and responsible use of technology, we have deliberately chosen not to run workshops on sexuality because families have their own values they wish to instil, and girls need to hear messages about sexuality at different ages, depending on their cognitive, emotional and physical development. We do believe, however, that by helping girls develop a strong sense of self, we are equipping them to be better able to make their own choices and to view themselves holistically – not just as a body but a heart, soul and mind, too.

In my book, The Butterfly Effect, I offer parents the following as part of an “Action Plan” to help raise healthy, whole young women:

Talk to your daughter honestly and non-judgementally about sex and her own sexuality. Her school will provide information on personal development and sexuality, but she needs you to be involved in this dialogue, too. This is part of your core business in raising your daughter to become a happy, healthy woman. When is the right time to start? I had a very wise grandmother who used to say ‘If a child is old enough to think of a sensible question, then they are old enough to hear a sensible answer.’ Keep in mind, though, that the onset of puberty is a stage of development that will unfold over many years. There is no need to discuss everything all at once. Be guided by her physical and mental maturity level, and her interest.

Be prepared for a few awkward moments; I have found that older teen girls often try to shock by asking questions they don’t think we will have answers for. (‘So what is a 69’er?’) If you respond calmly and in a matter-of-fact way, they are usually so impressed by your inability to be fazed that they go on to ask very thoughtful questions that really do matter to them. If you don’t have an answer, be honest and admit that you don’t know. In can be a powerful exercise to attempt to find answers together.

Be willing to attempt to resolve differences of opinion or at least be prepared to hear your daughter out, which will give her practice articulating her values. However, don’t back away from ultimately being the adult who sets limits about sex; and expect her to respect these. Encourage discussion by asking open-ended questions and actively listening to her.

It is vital to discuss the emotional component of sex, but think twice before making black-and-white statements such as ‘Sex is only for people who really love each other.’ Ideally, that might be true, but the reality may be quite different. Sex may be an expression of love, but it may also be an expression of boredom, curiosity, lust or even dark emotions such as anger or hate – for girls as well as boys. I have seen girls who engage in sexual acts only to later feel embarrassed by them. By helping your daughter to develop her emotional vocabulary, you will be helping her understand that sex not only has obvious physical consequences – pregnancy, STDs – but also an emotional impact. The glossy ads and catchy song lyrics rarely discuss complex human emotions. You should.

Get an effective internet filter. None of the filters on the market are completely fail-safe but they do offer some protection from porn on your home computers. Limiting and banning access to certain sites is only one strategy, though. It is far more effective in the long term to discuss why these sites are not suitable and what your daughter should do if she stumbles across one.

I’d be very interested in hearing your suggestions on how you are dealing with the ugly elements of cyber world.


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