Girls are a most important asset to any society and are proving themselves to be effective social change agents globally. At 17 years of age Malala Yousafzai, after surviving a gunshot to the head by a Taliban gunman while on a school bus, became the youngest ever Nobel Prize winner. Daughter of a relatively well to do Pakistani family, she became prominent as an advocate for girls’ education and liberation from Taliban restrictions, and has become an effective symbol of girl’s rights around the world.
Young girls are perhaps the most vulnerable population in the world right now. Internationally, a trafficking industry selling millions of vulnerable young women into sexual slavery and servitude is burgeoning, especially in the developing world.
In western cultures, girls are entering adulthood earlier and earlier with reports growing of them trying drugs and sex at a younger age (often against their will). A 2004 National Survey on Drug Use and Health revealed that 1.5 million girls ages 12-17 started drinking alcohol that year, the most recent year for which data are available. That compares with 1.28 million boys. Among the same age group, 730,000 girls started smoking cigarettes in 2004, compared with 565,000 boys, and 675,000 girls started using marijuana, compared with 577,000 boys (Kathleen Matthews (2006, Feb. 10), “Study: Girls trying drugs, alcohol at higher rates,” The Boston Globe, D5). The Washington Post even dubbed girls the “Teenage Crisis of the Moment” in 2003.
Moverover, books are abounding on the topic, such as Rachel Simmons’ Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls (2003) and Rosalind Wiseman’s Queen Bees & Wannabes (2002), among others.
Girl violence is more in the spotlight, like when a 14-yr-old girl was beaten unconscious by several other girls at a dance for honors students in Mount Vernon, WA (Associated Press, (2004, May 6), “Teen beaten unconcious by girls at honors dance,” The Boston Globe, A6).
What is happening? Many complex forces are shaping the new trends and news coverage. For one, the media is picking up on a new topic after exhausting the bout of violence and trouble caused by boys in past years (especially with the school shootings in the US). Also, girls are in fact entering adulthood sooner, whether by cultural/media pressures to grow up quicker, biological factors contributed to earlier menstruation, or social reverberations from a women’s liberation movement that has in some ways, encouraged girls to become more like boys.
However, girls are showing a strong resiliency. Among those at risk for sexual or labor exploitation, we hear stories of young women learning trades like sewing and craft-making and starting small businesses to keep them out of bondage. And, in the US, a Newsweek cover story entitled “In Defense of Teen Girls: They’re Not all ‘Mean Girls’ and ‘Ophelias'” from 2002, argued that there exists a healthy segment of girls who are thriving with the new opportunities and choices available to them in sports and careers and who are also managing to remain self-confident and secure amidst a culture that tries to tell them otherwise.
A plethora of new programs and websites for girls (see our Resource section), suggests that we are beginning to address both the problems and potential of young women.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
What has been your experience working with girls? Does it seem accurate to the above overview? What would you add or change?
How would you account for the increased attention given to girls in the media, as well as the younger ages of girls trying at-risk behavior?
How can youth leaders, mentors and churches reach out and support girls better?
While girls are an extremely vulnerable population around the world, they also are proving to be resilient and capable of developing into healthy and strong young women.