Big Sister plans to boost teenagers

Women's role: Initiative aims to improve the confidence of girls amid concerns that they are more likely to `drop out'
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The Independent Online
A MAJOR initiative to promote the role of women in society, including a drive to improve the self-confidence of teenage girls, was announced by the Government yesterday.

Amid concerns that teenage girls were more likely to "drop out", Baroness Jay, the Minister for Women, said efforts would focus on challenges such as eating disorders, smoking and pregnancies.

Ministers are likely to use teenage magazines and soap operas to get their message across and they will also set up a panel of "role models" for young women.

But Baroness Jay appeared to backtrack on suggestions that Geri Halliwell, the former Spice Girl, and Emma Thompson, the actress, have been approached, stressing instead the importance of mothers and big sisters as role models for girls.

"For women to reach their full potential in adulthood they must have self-worth as teenagers. Role models are very important in the development of teenage girls in arguing that they should have higher aspirations. At the moment, we are still trying to create a group of people we can use to be that," she said.

Research has shown that girls out-perform boys during their early school years, but then fall behind. Tessa Jowell, the Public Health Minister said figures proved that one in four teenage girls smoked and there was a trend of increasing drug and alcohol dependency among that age group.

Baroness Jay announced that the women's unit, set up by the sacked social security secretary Harriet Harman last year, was being relaunched and moved to the Cabinet Office.

She made clear that Ms Harman's work was seen as a "building block" for the new measures, pointing to the unit's achievements which include a national childcare strategy, a "family friendly" working package, an increase in child benefit and legislation allowing pensions to be shared on divorce. Baroness Jay and Ms Jowell both avoided references to feminism, describing themselves as pragmatists.

"In the 1970s, when there was a lot of political feminism going on, I was a young mother trying to cope with a job. I think women's issues have moved on and women are most concerned now with issues such as health and education," Baroness Jay said.

Ms Jowell added: "What is important is that we deliver practical improvements to the day-to-day life of women. That does not mean we are turning our back on old-style feminism because where we are today is the product of history."

She said that part of the Government's new initiative would be a national consultation exercise, called "Listening to Women" and a project with the Home Office on strategies to reduce crime against women, particularly domestic violence.

Ministers will consider using a Scottish pre-watershed advert against domestic violence, in which children are told there is "no excuse for domestic violence", nationwide.

In it, the Scottish Office used an "Oxo-type" family situation, which turns nasty when the father calls his wife "a pathetic and rotten mother" in front of his frightened children because his dinner is two minutes late.

The Government's campaign came under immediate attack from the Opposition parties, who said women expected ministers to "stop talking and start acting".

Theresa May, the Conservative women's spokesman said: "These sort of froth and bubble initiatives from the Islington tendency are the last thing young girls in this country need." Jackie Ballard, the Liberal Democrat spokeswoman, said: "People will judge Labour on their failure to deliver women-friendly policies."

Leading article, Review, page 3