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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 Middlesborough to share life experiences and use creative processes to address gender-related pressures. The project has given a voice to an often-marginalised social group, while also providing participants 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 Middlesborough 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 was conducted in collaboration with seven local schools 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.

The sequence of workshops provided a dedicated space in which participants could share experiences and co-produce artefacts which symbolise their feelings. The sessions also focussed on the pressures that are more exclusively associated with ‘being a girl’, such as gender stereotyping, sexual harassment and physical appearance. Meanwhile, the ‘B-Kind’ strand of the project – which invited mixed-gender groups – used mediums such as graphic novels to highlight issues.

The project showed that young girls were active, skilled and critical meaning-makers, in contrast to Sarah’s research into film and television’s interpretation of women, which can offer a passive and unthinking image. Many girls and teachers who participated during 2017 shared their thoughts, with reactions suggesting 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.”

The team are holding Girl-Kind again in 2019, with ten schools taking part. They also aim to create an ambassador programme, maintaining contact with past ‘GirlKinders’ from previous years, and arranging for them to engage with new participants.

Societal Impact


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