(until recently Katy was Lead Practitioner at Mentoring Plus)
Three years ago, Mentoring Plus recognised that 70% of referrals to our volunteer mentoring programme were for boys, and we recognised that this needed to change. I met with a small focus group of girls to ask them the following three questions: why are girls less likely to be referred for mentoring, why girls are referred for mentoring later than boys, and why are girls more likely to internalise their challenges until their teenage years.
This group of young women supported the charity to design a conference titled Supporting our Vulnerable Girls, for professionals to come together and hear from both the girls and keynote speakers. From this conference blossomed a thriving Girls’ Group, and it has been an absolute joy to lead such a passionate, engaged and hopeful group of young women since then. They have achieved an incredible amount in those three years; winning awards, a sell-out fashion show to promote female diversity and inclusivity, live BBC appearances, workshops on women in politics, business and sport, visits with MPs, activities with Olympic athletes and England netballers and sessions on healthy relationships and menstrual health, to name just a few things. I am incredibly proud that we recently pitched to Bath Women’s Fund to win £10,000, to fund setting up Girls’ Groups to three schools across the county. Seeing two of our girls take part in the pitch and talk so passionately about how Girls’ Group has changed their lives was incredibly humbling, and I know they will go on to achieve everything they set their minds to. I’m delighted that Girls’ Group is now being run by experienced practitioner Anna Brownell who had co-run the group for the last year with me.
Girls’ Group has given the girls a safe space to be themselves, and to ask questions about their lives, their bodies and their futures without judgement. I am so passionate about protecting this space for girls, and I also recognise that the use of the words ‘girl’ and ‘boy’ itself can be exclusionary to those who are trans or non-binary. Spaces need to exist for all young people, and specialist groups such as Girls’ Group, or SPACE (LGBTQIA+) run by Off the Record are an invaluable resource for young people to explore their identifies, their relationship to themselves and to the world. Human rights should be universally protected, regardless of how you define yourself.
Girls and women face discrimination daily, in almost every aspect of their lives. Books such as Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez highlight the monumental gender gap in data, and in access to opportunity, that exists now, in every country in the world. A recent article in the Guardian suggests that “girls are being informally excluded at a higher rate than boys from some schools in England, but their experiences are invisible as they are not included in official school exclusion statistics”. But why are our girls invisible? Why are girls’ rights not protected? Why are so many girls subjugated to a life of unpaid labour? Why are women worldwide discriminated against by the gender pay gap? Why, in a world where we have learnt to send people into space, where we have created AI, and aircraft, and augmented reality, have we not learnt to give girls and women social, economic and political equity? And let’s not even think about how long it took for women to actually be allowed into space.
I know that the answers to these questions are out there. I also know that I want to be part of finding them. It is with equal excitement and sadness that I am leaving Mentoring Plus to dedicate my time wholly to this cause. I am moving to London to pursue a Masters in Education, Gender and International Development and work at an independent girls’ school leading their pastoral programme. I am relentlessly hopeful that global change is possible. But girls and women need more than my relentless hopefulness. We need equal access to education. We need radical action from our politicians. We need clear goals, clear accountability and clear direction. We need to know that the future we are working towards is more equal, more empowered and more inspiring than the one that came before. We need leadership rooted in feminism, and we needed it years ago. One of my favourite authors Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks eloquently on the topic, and she inspires me to take up more space in the world and follow my dreams. “Please love by giving and by taking. Give and be given. If you are only giving and not taking, you’ll know. You’ll know from that small and true voice inside you that we females are so often socialized to silence. Don’t silence that voice. Dare to take.”
When announcing my departure from Mentoring Plus, peers and colleagues have (very kindly) said that because of my passion for this cause, they are sure that they’ll see me again soon: campaigning on national news, working for the UN, or being elected as Prime Minister. Who knows where I’ll be, but I know that wherever it is, I’ll be fighting for change. Daring to take. I hope you’ll be there alongside.
Criado Perez, C. 2019, Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men