Clodagh Finn: Teenage girls don't feel safe, supported, confident or equal 

Survey reveals worrying statistics around body image, self-esteem, and mental health — and misogyny among their male peers
Clodagh Finn: Teenage girls don't feel safe, supported, confident or equal 

Back, left to right: Professional racing cyclist Laura Gillespie, the Shona Project ambassador Daisy Drohan, the Shona Project founder and CEO Tammy Darcy, and ambassadors Anjelica Foley and Aoife Hutchison. Front, from left: Olympic swimmer Ellen Walshe and the Shona Project communications manager Ellen Conway.

YOU might have lost your appetite for number-crunching in these inflationary times, but here are two statistics that made me sit to attention.

The first is that just 20% of Irish teenage girls believe they will have the same opportunities as boys.

How can it be, after all the campaigns, the movements, the fights for equal pay and equal rights, that just one in five girls thinks she will “be afforded the same opportunities as those who identify as men”?

In 2022.

That shocker partly explains the second statistic. In the first two weeks of October, a voluntary organisation that receives no government funding, Shona, will send out some 30,000 copies of its excellent brochure, The Survival Kit handbook for Girls, to first-year students all around the country.

There is a clearly a demand for it, not to mention an urgent need given the responses to the questions posed by the same organisation, the Shona Project, which provides a support system for girls through their teenage years.

The fact that Tammy Darcy, Red Cross Humanitarian of the Year 2021, felt the need to set it up in 2016 is another stark reminder of how heavily Irish governments have relied on the voluntary sector to do what they have failed to do themselves.

How lucky we are, though, that we have so many ordinary people who see a yawning need and do something about it.

And what a need. The results of a survey, released on Monday at the launch of the Shona Project’s upcoming Shine Festival (October 11-12), open a distressing window on the fears faced by girls and young women between the ages of 11 and 19.

It is deeply unsettling to think that young girls believe their sex to be a barrier to their ambitions, but the results of the survey conducted by the Shona Project with the Youth Lab and the Irish Secondary Students Union were unequivocal.

Part of the reason for that belief is contained in this response.

An overwhelming majority of teenage girls (87%) said they felt pressure from society to conform to a narrow idea of “success”. That idea of success is based on how a girl looks rather than who she is, or what she achieves.

Little wonder the same percentage report that they have a negative body image.

Self-esteem and confidence, along with mental health, emerged as the biggest challenges faced by young girls in their day-to-day lives.

You could argue that the survey sample was relatively small (559), but its findings echo the fear and disillusionment highlighted among 18- to 24-year-olds last week.

More than seven in 10 in that age bracket said they were thinking of moving abroad because they think they would enjoy a better quality of life elsewhere, according to research done by Red C for the National Youth Council of Ireland.

That has prompted calls for the Government to address those fears in the upcoming budget.

Let’s hope the Government takes note but it’s crystal clear that help is needed much, much earlier.

Ireland, alas, is no country for young people.

As Tammy says: “Having travelled to every corner of Ireland and met over 25,000 girls through our work, I have seen for some time that our young women are struggling, but even I was shocked by some of these results.

Our girls don’t feel safe, supported, confident or equal, and that’s worrying in today’s day and age.

"We can’t underestimate that this is a crisis, and our young people, both boys and girls, need support now more than ever before.”

Here are some discomfiting points on the map of need.

In the past six months alone, teenage girls claimed that because of social media they struggled with low body image (61%), feeling isolated (55%), low self-esteem (52%), and low mental health (48%).

In the past 24 months, almost half (42%) of teen girls have given up sports, citing lack of motivation to attend as the main reason.

On day-to-day threats, the majority (61%) said they felt unsafe in the evening and night-time and more than half said they wouldn’t know what to do if they were bullied.

It is also very clear that we need to talk to — and about — boys.

Much as we like to think we are making progress, many young girls say they feel like moving targets, judged by boys for how they look rather than who they are.

There are stories of boys who have Whatsapp groups where they assess and dissect their “objects” of desire. Object is the operative word as they see and talk about girls as if they are conquests or things to possess.

“You wouldn’t believe the stuff that some girls are being sent,” Tammy says.

“Empathy is a sign of strength. Kindness is a sign of strength. These boys are not seeing that. They are seeing aggression, ownership, conflict, and machoism as signs of strength.

“Until you educate boys about what it means to be a man in the same way that we are trying to show girls how to be a woman, we won’t make progress.”

So where is the survival guide for young boys? When can we expect the much-needed support network?

The Shona Project offers a replicable model and, as Tammy says, she has been shouting about the need for one for years. With funding (budget-makers, take note), you could quickly form an umbrella organisation with the potential to reach out to tens of thousands of young boys.

International Day of the Girl

With no funding and just two full-time workers, the Shona Project has already done that. Next month, tens of thousands more will find a voice and a forum at the Shine Festival, which will burst into action for two days to celebrate the International Day of the Girl.

It's a glowing beacon in a sea of uncertainty.

We are not short on willingness or imagination in the community. Last year, for instance, Swedish-based Irish journalist Philip O’Connor suggested we adopt a version of Locker Room Talk, a project set up to tackle the misogyny and bullying young boys said they witnessed when they were taking part in sport.

The Stockholm group even offered to help set up an Irish pilot programme to work with 10- to 14-year-old boys to look at the way they talk and think about women.

There was no take-up, but maybe it will come.

I say that because we need some hope to navigate these days of myriad crises. In the Shona survival guide, there’s an uplifting section on the “power of yet”. It advises you to add the word “yet” to your vocabulary to take the sting out of those “can’t sentences”. For example, I can’t speak French yet.

Or, one I’d add myself: “The Irish Government can’t see the crisis facing our young people, yet.”

A person has to have a little hope and believe that the gallant efforts of our citizens to guide our young people through these difficult times will eventually be seen and supported by those in power.

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