By Angela Sterritt

For the past 17 years Battered Women’s Support Services has operated a dating violence education program as violence prevention. Trained speakers attend career and personal planning classes to raise awareness of violence in intimate relationships and the elements of healthy relationships. BWSS has extended their dating violence education program to ensure it fully represents the voices of girls, young women while seeking involvement from boys and young men. This program is called BWSS Youth Engagement in Violence Prevention.

Teenage girls are one of the most vulnerable groups in ‘Canadian’ society. They are subjected to high rates of sexual and physical violence, often without support or understanding from adult authorities. Approximately 1 in 6 girls live in poverty, many encounter abuse and neglect in government facilities such as youth prisons and child welfare agencies, they have virtually no access to girl-only shelter, and they make up approximately 10% of the homeless in Canada. Girls are one of the most powerless groups of people in mainstream society.

Indigenous girls and girls of colour face further marginalization, abuse and violence due the adult, colonial, racist and patriarchal nature of the Eurocentric society we live in. For example, Indigenous, immigrant and refugee girls experience higher rates of violence because of dislocation, racism, and sexism from both within their own communities and the external society. Indigenous girls face particularly high levels of violence.

  • Amnesty International (2004) reports that Aboriginal women aged 25-44 are five times more likely than other Canadian women of the same age to die of violence.
  • More than 500 Aboriginal women and girls have gone missing or been murdered over the last 30 years. Systemic racist and discriminatory factors on the part of Canada play a role in violence against Aboriginal women and girls.

Recently BWSS’ Youth Engagement in Violence Prevention program held a discussion with a small group girls to explore their views on the origins of and the prevention of violence and abuse they experience.

Their conversation highlighted and confirmed the research. The young women, aged 14-20, explained that girl violence is often seen as “…funny…hard to take seriously…[and] based on insecurities”. One study conducted with youth of 14-18 years from five U.S high schools, revealed that girl violence is often considered “insignificant and meaningless” in comparison to male violence and stems from “low levels of self-esteem”.[Note:iv]

Girls experience abuse in their intimate dating relationships. Violent abusers may use a number of different tactics to try to exert power and control over their victims. Physical, sexual or psychological abuse may be perpetrated by an abuser acting alone or with a group of people against a victim. Many young women whom are in abusive relationships have also faced violence and abuse in the home. Violence in the home among girls is ubiquitous.

  • Girls made up 79% of all family-related sexual assault victims in 2002, with the highest rates associated with girls aged 11 to 14. Family-related physical assault rates against girls increased with age, with the highest rate at age 17.
  • Young women under 25 make up the highest risk group related to violence.
  • Young women are at the greatest risk of assault by intimate partners, and sexual assault.
  • Almost 80 percent of victims of sexual assault in the family, which have been reported to the police, are girls.

An examination of girl violence found that girls that are violent report significantly greater rates of victimization and abuse in the home and with their partners than non-violent girls. Learned behaviors in the home and in relationships often mirror the power structure in society where marginalized people are expected to oppress those whom have less power than themselves instead of actively critiquing those power structures at play. As the girls in conversation with BWSS explained, “we learn from what we see around us and often follow the standards society sets out”. This can be particularly dangerous for young people who are trying to assert power and individuality based on the principles established in the mainstream culture. Girls want new standards based on community and girl powered protection, strength, and empowerment.

Protection and Security: Devising a Plan Towards Safety and Empowerment

The youth from Coast Salish territory made it clear, “young women have to take control of their lives through education, awareness and action”. In this regard it is important to recognize first, the power structures in society that oppress and encourage violence, aggression and abuse against the marginalized. Becoming aware of the roots and manifestations of violence is a first step towards finding ways to end it.

  • Girls, especially Indigenous girls and girls of color are in need of spaces that encourage activism and voice. Girl focused and powered media, groups, analysis and actions will help empower girls to educate each other and those whom can advocate resistance against oppression.
  • Advocates and allies for girls require a consciousness about seemingly gender and race “neutral” language and actions that can have unintended but terrible consequences. Girls and their allies need to promote better and more nuanced analysis that underscores systemic oppression and violence as a framework for understanding individual and group behaviors.
  • There needs to be further engagement to challenge media images of crime that sensationalize girls’ violence rather than contextualizing it.
  • Violence in the home and male violence needs to be exposed exponentially. Girls need to be able to identify abuse and violence, support each other, build allies and address violence.
  • There needs to be more girl specific housing and safe places for girls whom are leaving their home or violent relationships. Communities also need to take responsibility and provide safety for young women.
  • Warriors (male and female) need to stand up for each other! It is our duty as oppressed people to assist those who do not have the means to free themselves from oppression by providing them safety, security, and empowerment. By challenging oppressive institutions, policies, structures and individuals we are one step closer to creating safety and empowerment for girls.

Take Back Your Life! End Violence Against Girls!