In world where men stare at seven-year-olds, girls are fighting back '“ Denise Spence

Since it was launched this year, nearly 5,000 Girlguides have earned the Citizen Girl badge, which aims to encourage them to create a truly equal society, writes Denise Spence.
Girlguiding Scotland and Women 50:50 have joined forces this year to launch a campaign, Citizen Girl, to inspire and empower the next generation of female leaders in politicsGirlguiding Scotland and Women 50:50 have joined forces this year to launch a campaign, Citizen Girl, to inspire and empower the next generation of female leaders in politics
Girlguiding Scotland and Women 50:50 have joined forces this year to launch a campaign, Citizen Girl, to inspire and empower the next generation of female leaders in politics

This year was a momentous one for girls and young women in Scotland. We marked 100 years since the first women gained the right to vote in the UK and celebrated the impact of girls and young women during Scotland’s Year of Young People. Here in Scotland and across the world we’ve seen young women making their voices heard, taking action in their communities and even standing for office themselves in record numbers.

There’s been much to celebrate. But we know there’s still a long way to go before every girl can feel safe and happy in her everyday life and can look forward to a truly equal future.

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As the chief executive for Scotland’s leading charity for girls and young women, I’m in a privileged position to see the impact girls can make when they are empowered to stand up for themselves and their beliefs. In recent years, Girlguiding Scotland members have been campaigning for change on some of the most pressing social issues of today.

They’ve collected 8,000 pairs of shoes and socks and distributed these, along with hand-written messages of good will, to refugees fleeing conflict. They’ve spoken out at the Scottish Parliament, highlighting the unacceptable levels of sexual harassment and misogyny that girls face in their communities, online and at school. And they’ve taken a stand against period poverty, gathering vital supplies for people in need and helping secure free products at schools, colleges and universities in Scotland.

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It’s clear when girls are empowered they can be an unstoppable force in their communities and beyond. But we know that girls continue to face barriers in their everyday lives and as they look ahead to their future. New research by Girlguiding Scotland has cast a stark light on the everyday inequalities girls continue to face. Seventy-seven per cent of girls aged 12 to 25 told us that they were treated differently because they are female, with 28 per cent saying this happens often or always. And, worryingly, nearly one in two girls told us they felt they’d have more freedom to go out and about by themselves if they were a boy.

Girls told us this inequality affects their lives in all sorts of ways; from the seven-year-old who told us that she had to wear dresses, be on her best behaviour and not climb trees to the 15-year-old who told us about the pressure to look like the Kardashians on social media and the pressure to look perfect all the time.

Girls as young as seven told us that men stared at them and that boys thought they were soft or couldn’t do the same things as them.

Older girls told us about everyday experiences of harassment and abuse and that fear that, even in 2018, being a woman could hold them back in their careers.

I was particularly concerned to read, as we celebrated the 100th-year anniversary of the first women gaining the right to vote, that only 14 per cent of girls aged seven to 25 said they would consider standing to become an MSP, MP or councillor. And 57 per cent said politicians had little or no understanding of the issues affecting their lives. Nearly 70 per cent said they thought political parties should make sure half of their candidates are female while eight out of ten said they thought this would encourage more girls and young women to get involved in politics.

Girlguiding Scotland wanted to seize the opportunity this momentous year offered to put girls’ voices at the heart of what we do, and inspire the next generation to take the lead.

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That’s why we teamed up with equal representation campaign group, Women 50:50, to create Citizen Girl, our new resource to empower girls aged five to 18 to discover how powerful their voice can be and how they can play a part in the democratic process.

Since we launched Citizen Girl, nearly 5,000 girls have taken up the challenge and earned their Citizen Girl badge, exploring themes of equality, representation and participation in a fun and hands-on way. We’ve seen Rainbows, Brownies, Guides and Rangers build their own edible parliaments, create their own Citizen Girl superheroes, pass their own laws and even hold their own Citizen Girl summits.

Girls have visited to parliament, written to their MSP or MP and shared their views with local politicians. They’ve taken action in their communities by organising litter picks, supporting their local foodbank, or starting petitions on issues they care about.

I’m constantly inspired by what our girls achieve when they make their voices heard. But if we want a truly equal future for this generation and future ones, we need to take action now to create the conditions for girls to take the lead.

As members of the National Advisory Council on Women and Girls, we’re really proud to be a part of the conversation about how we can create an equal future and make Scotland a more inclusive and fairer society.

It’s been fascinating and inspiring to hear from individuals and organisations from all over the country on how we can realise this vision and I’d encourage anyone to get involved and share their views and experiences which will be fed into an independent report to the First Minister.

This year put equality in the spotlight, now it’s up to us to make sure its legacy is one of real and meaningful change.

Denise Spence is chief executive of Girlguiding Scotland