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The state of girlhood in the UK: How can we turn up the volume of hope for girls?

Dr Claire Rush

28 Oct, 2016


Responding to a survey describing growing unhappiness around girls and women aged 7-21, Dr Claire Rush paves a positive way forward.


Last week, GirlGuiding UK’s survey revealed that girls are becoming increasingly unhappy and lacking in confidence. Surrounded by a popular culture which both screams and whispers to girls ‘You’re not enough’, 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 girls’ needs, concerns and aspirations in relevant ways! Hope is not just a word; real hope spurs us to action. It fuels us to be so dissatisfied with the status quo so that we’ll be the change we want to see in the world. But we need to put hope into action. And youth workers have a key role in doing this.

1. Listen to the voices of girls

Many of the statistics and messages being communicated by girls are uncomfortable. Reading the Girls’ Attitudes survey isn’t easy but by listening to girls, we can address the barriers that they face to achieving their aspirations and support them to flourish. As youth workers, we have to honestly reflect on whether or not we’re contributing to these barriers, injustices and obstacles that girls have identified. Is our youth group a safe place for girls? Do we allow sexist comments as ‘banter’? Are we addressing the real issues that young people are facing? Are we giving girls and boys equal opportunity to lead?

We can also be more intentional about listening to the hopes, concerns and frustrations of young people around us, including girls. By giving girls a platform to tell their stories – whether it’s in a youth group or online – we’re improving their confidence and demonstrating that we believe their experiences and opinions are of value and importance. But equally important, we’re also opening ourselves up to being inspired and transformed by them as well.

How are you listening to the voice of girls around you?

2. Cultivate identity capital

The statistics from the Girls’ Attitudes Survey 2016 demonstrates the need for a counter-cultural hope-filled narrative for girls. As last week’s blog explored, there’s a real 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 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 through helping them encounter the living Jesus in relevant and relational ways.

For example, GB England & Wales 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 to cultivate courage and resilience in fun and safe environments.

How are you cultivating the identity capital reserves in young women?

3. Build up emotional and spiritual resilience

Over the past month, a number of different surveys have revealed the critical state of young people’s mental and emotional well-being. Girls, in particular, are navigating a difficult culture filled with paradoxical messages and feel ill-equipped to do so. In the Girls’ Attitudes survey, 52% of girls (seven to 21) told us that they wouldn’t seek help because they’re uncomfortable talking about their feelings. But young people want us to support them better. Girls identified that supporting their mental health was one of the main things we could do to improve the lives of girls and women.

And we, the Church, need to hear that. Are we breaking the stigma that surrounds mental health? How are we addressing issues like self-harm, consent in relationships, stress, pornography, sexuality, and depression in our youth group? Perhaps fear of being ill-equipped may hold you back but there are many brilliant organisations like selfharmUK, Romance Academy, koko and Diverse Church who provide innovative session materials for you to use.

Are we addressing some of the relevant issues that young people are facing in our youth group or are we avoiding them?

4. 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 both 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 women like The Esther Collective.

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 equip them to do so. By acknowledging that young women can lead and inspire us, we’re recognising that God uses all genders and people of all 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?

5. 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 hurt boys and men too.

Our popular culture is also communicating a damaging version of masculinity to boys. Boys are learning through media and the proliferation of pornography to view and treat girls as sex objects. Therefore for some boys, a girl’s value is only in how attractive they are to the opposite sex and their ability to meet their sexual needs. This is then reinforced in behaviour. Sadly a report from the House of Commons Women and Equalities committee a few weeks ago revealed that two-thirds of girls are sexually harassed in school. School, families and the Church also need to equip boys to navigate this confusing world too, and to view and treat girls with respect.

Men have an important role to play in the way that 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 women’s value is based on their physical appearance? How are you celebrating and recognising the bravery, strength and gifts of the women around you?

Much needs to be done so that girls aren’t adapting their own behaviour and aspirations to navigate an unequal society. Instead society needs to change to meet girls’ expectations and support them to fulfil their potential.

Ultimately the core issue is that we need to cultivate a culture of worth for everyone. We need to recognise and act on the truth that each of us has equal worth and value - regardless of what we look like or what our gender, age, race, or ability is. This is the hopeful message that Jesus brought to us and He’s calling us to follow in His footsteps today in our homes, in our youth groups and wherever He has placed us.

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