On Tuesday, December 3, a few of my high school feminist classmates and I attended an event at the US Mission to the UN as part of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence. Two of our classmates, Esmé and Cheyenne, were on the panel of girl activists discussing how to address gender-based violence.
It was incredibly inspiring to hear girls I knew, along with other girls my age from throughout New York City, speak about these issues and the initiatives they’ve taken to fight bullying and harassment, sex trafficking, the sexualization of girls and women in the media, and school push-out.
Isabella, the first girl activist to speak, spoke about the issue of sextrafficking in the US. She emphasized how important it is for people to realize that sex trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery, and it should be brought up in our classrooms when we talk about slavery that happened 200 years ago.
I’ve heard the same numbers and facts over and over, yet they never seize to horrify me. The commercial sex industry is worth approximately 33 billion dollars. The average age of entry into the commercial sex industry in the United States is 13 years old.
In New Jersey, Isabella’s hometown, 170 women were convicted on prostitution charges, while exactly zero pimps were found guilty. These numbers and facts need to change, and, as Isabella said, in order to do so “we need to change the notion that women and girls can be treated like property.”
Isabella recently drafted a bill that requires public facilities to post the National Human Trafficking Recourse Center Hotline (NHTRC), 1- 888-373-7888, in restrooms. Spreading this number, and posting it in places with privacy, is essential because it gives CSEC victims an opportunity to ask for help and a chance to escape.
My feminist classmate Cheyenne spoke next about the sexualization of women and girls in the media, and the ways in which is desensitizes our society to violence against women. Its portrayal of women as sexual objects is largely responsible for the injustices we face daily. Girls are taught from a very young age through toys such as Barbie, that we should to be white, skinny, blonde, passive and quiet. Our purpose in life is then to become sexual objects for men. We are “damsels in distress,” incapable of doing anything without the help of our male hero. Meanwhile, boys are taught that women are disposable, basically toys they can get rid of once the fun is over.
The media essentially gives boys permission to treat girls and women like objects. This is why men feel entitled to call us names and comment on our bodies, believing that it is their right. This is also why girls can barely walk down the street without feeling uncomfortable, and why we are constantly at risk for street harassment and more extreme forms of sexual assault. This is why we are slut-shamed and viewed as “asking for it,” and why we hear phrases like “well, what did you expect?” rather than, “that’s not okay”. This is why 1 in 5 women have been sexually assaulted and 1 in 3 girls will experience violence.
The media uses sex as a tool to promote a capitalist culture. It manipulates us to want, even feel like we “need” a product because it will make us sexy. Being sexy is supposedly our primary purpose in life and our sole path to power.
The consequence of these messages is that women spend huge amounts of time and money of trying to be sexy, and, as Cheyenne said perfectly, “If we girls spend our time trying to look good, we are not studying, making art, being leaders.”
Instead of buying into the media’s manipulation, we need to demand change, and, as Cheyenne and many other inspiring girl activists have proven, “Change begins with us.” The SPARK movement, which Cheyenne is involved in, has successfully challenged the sexualization of women and girls in the media. Some of the initiatives they have taken include creating a petition that ended the use of Photoshop images in Seventeen Magazine and starting campaigns such as the Lego Friends Campaign and the H&M plus size model campaign.
My other schoolmate Esmé followed on the panel by discussing the issue of bullying and harassment in schools, as well as the Safe Schools Leadership Council she helped co-found as an anti-bullying initiative at our school. It was extremely powerful to hear her personal stories that I believe everyone in the room could relate to on some level. She talked about how, as girls, we learn to internalize sexism, misogyny, and other messages from bullies that damage our self-esteem and that follow us into adulthood.
For example, she shared that according to the United States Department of Education, 150,000 students miss school daily due to feeling unsafe due to bullying, and 42% of girls are bullied every year according to the Center for Disease Control. While these statistics are truly devastating, what I find even more troubling is the fact that, at least to me, these numbers are not surprising. Bullies get away with their behavior because “if we stand up for ourselves we are considered uptight and prudes.”
Esmé also discussed the fundamental role that the intersection of race, gender, sexuality, and other social identifiers play, something that has become a common theme in our high school feminism class. The mere fact that I am a girl means that I am denied many rights and privileges that men have. However, no one is defined by their gender, race, sexuality, or class alone. We are a combination of all of our social identities, and all of these identities factor into how likely we are to be bullied. For example, girls are twice as likely, and LGBTQ youth are four times as likely than boys to be bullied in US schools. This is yet another disturbing, but unsurprising, statistic that needs to be changed.
Being an upstander, as opposed to a bystander, is crucial to make change and put an end to bullying. Another important strategy is to form non-discriminatory safe environments in schools, and to make clear that bullying is unacceptable.
The next to speak on the panel was Annie, an inspiring young activist who founded an organization called FIERCE, which addresses and works to end violence against women and girls. The organization raises awareness, changes attitudes, encourages people to “think outside the box,” and question their gender expectations and stereotypes, and gets young people involved in the fight against gender-based violence.
Annie stressed the importance of taking action: “We should never be discouraged. It is within our means to stop gender-based violence. It does not matter if it is in the classroom or on the streets, every action goes a long way.” Annie stressed how essential it is to create platforms where young girl activists can find support to start their own campaigns.
The final girl activist to speak was Kisma, who discussed the issue of school pushout, practices in schools that push students, typically members of oppressed groups, out of school, and often into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Students that face racism, classism, and other forms of oppression in their daily lives should be able to see school as a safe space where they feel encouraged. Instead, many schools treat members students of color and queer youth (including queer youth of color) like criminals, giving them harsh and unfair punishments. As a result, these students to view school as a safe environment and do not feel motivated.
Kisma explained that in order to end to school pushout, we need to raise awareness, increase the number of guidance counselors and mediators in public schools, and stop expecting students to fit a certain standard.
One thing that all these incredible activists made clear is that in order to fight violence against women, “we need to question gender expectations, not try to live up to them.”