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Shared experience empowers girls in North East

In response to the rights divide between British girls in the North of England and those in the South, Sarah Ralph has helped young girls in areas like Newcastle and Middlesbrough to share life experiences and use creative processes to address gender-related pressures. The project has provided an often-marginalised social group with empowering knowledge and, above all, the sense of being listened to. 

Sarah Ralph is Senior Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at Northumbria University and her work promotes the well-being and self-esteem of young people in disadvantaged pockets of North East England. The backdrop for Sarah’s work is a 2016 study by Plan International UK, which demonstrated a North-South divide between girls in the UK. It also indicated a poor record of rights in relation to life expectancy, child poverty and educational outcomes, with Newcastle, Gateshead and Middlesbrough all appearing in the bottom 15%. 

The ‘Girl-Kind’ initiative has been led by Sarah and her colleague, Newcastle University’s Sarah Winkler-Reid, and has emerged from their research into the lives of young British girls and the use of creative arts to encourage freedom of expression. It is delivered in partnership with local creative arts organisations and 10 North East schools who provide the space for groups to meet, including Sacred Heart High School in Newcastle, St Wilfrid’s Roman Catholic College in South Shields and Durham High School for Girls in County Durham.  

Running annually from September to early December, Girl-Kind consists of a sequence of workshops which focus on the pressures associated with ‘being a girl’, such as gender stereotyping, sexual harassment, and physical appearance, through which participants can share experiences and co-produce media-related artefacts which symbolise their feelings. Meanwhile, the ‘B-Kind’ strand of the project – which invited mixed-gender groups – used mediums such as graphic novels to highlight issues. 

The project has continuously shown that young girls are active, skilled and critical meaning-makers, in contrast to the findings of Sarah’s research into film and television’s interpretation of women, which highlight a passive and unthinking image. Thoughts shared by many girls and teachers who participated in the 2017 workshops demonstrated that the project was a very positive experience, emphasising the resonance of individual impact in a wider social context.  

One of the girls said: “I enjoyed the workshop because we could discuss our thoughts about being a girl and discuss day-to-day struggles.” Another had relished the film workshop because it provided the opportunity to spread awareness on the risks that girls face every day.  

“You are not judged, and feel completely safe to express your ideas,” added one of the other girls. “It gives you a chance to look deeper into your opinions and the toxic stigma of femininity,” concluded another.  

A participating teacher was encouraged by how responsive some girls were: “I saw a real maturity coming from them, which I hadn’t seen before. For some, I think it was the first time they’d ever aired those thoughts.” 

Since it was established in 2017, over 300 girls have participated in Girl-Kind and have thus benefitted from the opportunity to develop mediamaking skills and the confidence to showcase new abilities to express their experiences of girlhood.  

Elements of the programme have since been adopted by the Young Women’s Film Academy (YWFA), the only all-female film academy in the UK. Collaboration between Girl-Kind and YWFA resulted in a the ‘Film-in-a-day’ workshop – an opportunity for girls from participating schools to acquire hands-on training in story-board creation, filmmaking, and camera operation. Films produced during these workshops have received significant local attention; with some participants being interviewed on BBC radio about their experience and others attending the North East Young Filmmaker Award (2019). 

In the wake of the success of Girl-Kind, Ralph and colleagues were invited to contribute a national report developed by Plan-UK in 2020, a follow up to their initial work that had described areas in the North East as ‘the worst place to be a girl’. This input led Plan-UK to enhance their approach to delivering programmes and content directly to girls in the UK, by drawing on the Girl-Kind model of ‘Girl-Centred Design’ – a technique which places girls needs at the heart of solutions. 

Find out more

Girl-Kind website

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