Meet Kassandra! Kassandra is a second year student at the University of Toronto, and has been on Plan International Canada’s Because I am a Girl Speakers Bureau for 3 years. Kassandra recently joined a youth delegation attending the Girl Empowerment Forum with Plan International Canada President & CEO Caroline Riseboro, as well as Celebrated Ambassadors Rosey Edeh, and Mme. Sophie Grégoire Trudeau. She shares her experience with us and explains the 5 most pressing girl issues discussed.
This is the one word I would use to describe the sensation that filled me while sharing my views on May 2, 2016 at Glebe Collegiate Institute in Ottawa, where young girls from across the country representing Because I Am a Girl met to discuss women’s rights issues.
The Girl Empowerment Forum was led by Plan International Canada’s President & CEO Caroline Riseboro, where she was joined with Olympian and acclaimed journalist Rosey Edeh, and long-time Because I Am a Girl Celebrated Ambassador Mme. Sophie Grégoire Trudeau.
Speaking to issues ranging from sexual and reproductive health, to the extent to which a young woman feels valued within the institutions and communities she is a part of, this forum was used as a tool to further understand the way that the daily and long-term experiences of Canadian girls and young women have been shaped by their gender.
Here are some of the recurring themes our group felt were most important to share with Caroline Riseboro, Rosey Edeh and Mme. Sophie Grégoire Trudeau.
1.) Gender Roles
Contradictions upon contradictions. The extent of the frustration of the young women in the room cannot be described by mere words. Our collective experiences encompassed years of questioning, curiosity, anger, and sometimes lowered self-esteem as a result of not feeling valued in our need to have our voices heard. One major area in which these young girls identified the most contradictions was a woman’s right to her own body.
Legally, women have access to abortions and the right to have sex with whom and when they please. But this did not seem to be the case socially, according to the young women present.
When it comes to sexual activity it seemed as if women were often caught in a catch-22, whereby if she did not engage in sex she was deemed a “prude”, but if she did she would be considered “promiscuous”.
What’s important to note here is that these are completely polar opposite labels. The lack of middle ground frustrates young women and added to the importance of the discussion and the urgency of addressing this issue.
2.) Planning for the Future
Within this panel there were girls from ages 16-23, yet all felt some sort of struggle in regards to planning for their futures. Some young women felt scared to take up challenging careers because they recognized they wanted to be mothers as well. They consistently raised the question of performing “the great balancing act” of being a working mom. Others raised sincere questions of wanting to be a full-time stay-at-home mom and how this choice was deemed archaic as women need to prove to society that they are capable of “more”. Struggles of choice against desire alongside external influences of what is socially acceptable were core to their concerns.
3.) Role of Social Media
In an era of instant news and constant advertising, how is the image of a woman presented sexually? Is it in the hyperbolic sexualization of Asian women? Or is it in the empowerment of Nicki Minaj and Beyonce’s feminist visions?
The participants noticed that the media has made categorizations for women. It was in the fact that women in the discussion felt the compulsion to identify that they were expected to be like Beyonce or Nicki Minaj if they were sexually active, which led to many realizing they were being put into a box.
Why can’t I be different from these icons, but still sexually active? Why can’t I be like them and choose to not engage in sex? I found this to be very eye-opening as often times we label ourselves without realizing that everyone’s experience is completely different. There are various factors that determine one’s decisions and we aren’t all straight, cisgender, sexually active females.
We can’t afford to be constrained by what we are told is the right way to conduct ourselves, when there is no clear-cut path.
4.) Role of Authority
Time and time again, the role of culture, parents, and religion were continuously brought to the table. Whether it be young women with experiences in the Catholic school systems or those who hail from conservative-belief-based households, the overwhelming concern was closed dialogue.
Some of the girls questioned why it is that in the Catholic school system many students leave with a lack of understanding of what sex really is, and how to protect themselves.
Others questioned why it is that some Muslim women find their religious attire empowering and others find it to be something that defeats the purpose that was taught to them in protecting themselves.
The lack of acceptance and room for knowledge was a recurring theme in these conversations.
5.) Call to Action
Lastly, this was the most important issue of the day: there needs to be change. The girls grouped together to send a resounding message of the importance of creating space to open up a standard for discussion. Sharing stories, raising awareness, and ensuring that all voices are heard and welcomed is the first and most crucial step.