We must act to stop sexism that starts in the classroom

According to new statistics, a shocking 81 per cent of girls aged 11 to 21 have seen or experienced some form of sexism in the past week

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The Independent Online

When you imagine a typical day in the life of a teenage girl, you might think of catching the bus; flipping through messages on a smart phone; perhaps chatting with friends. But would sexism, harassment and degrading comments come immediately to mind? According to the results of a new survey, perhaps they should.

A shocking 81 per cent of girls aged 11 to 21 have seen or experienced some form of sexism in the past week, according to new statistics released today by Girlguiding. The Girls’ Attitudes survey, which asked a representative sample of over 1,500 girls and young women between 7 and 21 about their experiences, also revealed that, in a single week, three in five girls said they heard jokes or remarks that belittled or degraded women, and 39 per cent had demeaning comments made to them about the way they look.

Ashvini Rae, 17, a member of the Girlguiding advocate panel, told me: “It can be little things like hearing a rape joke or being undermined because of your gender, but those little things really add up and in some cases, it can also include physical harassment. My worry is that if girls and young women are told enough times that rape is something to joke about then if it happens to them they won’t feel like they’d be taken seriously if they reported it.”

The results also revealed a sharp increase in the number of girls unhappy about the portrayal of women in the media. Half of girls aged 11 to 21 said they don’t feel women are portrayed fairly – a big shift from 2010 when only one quarter of girls felt the same way. Some 42 per cent said they had read something in the media in the past week alone that trivialised violence or abuse towards women.

The results are stark, and they reveal the true extent to which gender inequality impacts on the daily lives of girls before they even reach adulthood. From facing harassment and sexist jokes in the school corridors to seeing women unfairly portrayed in the media, girls learn hard and early that their bodies are fair game for public comment and their achievements will be considered less important than their looks.

A 2010 YouGov survey for the End Violence Against Women Coalition revealed that almost one in three girls aged 16-18 experienced unwanted sexual touching – a form of sexual assault under UK law – at school.

But Larissa Kennedy, 17, also a member of the advocate panel, argues that there is little awareness of what girls are dealing with.

“People don’t realise the extent of the issue. Girls are worried about going out, worried about what they’re wearing because of the way society treats them. Being constantly afraid of doing something or saying something that might provoke someone is not a healthy way to live.”

The determination of young women themselves to tackle these issues is inspiring. But they desperately need support from those in more powerful positions. Before the general election, Girlguiding members called on politicians to act, with a campaign called Girls Matter asking Members of Parliament to sign up to eight pledges, including better sex and relationships education.

Kennedy says: “I’d like to see those politicians who signed up to Girls Matter following through with what they said and taking action.”

Rae adds: “Sometimes it feels a bit like politicians have never met teenage girls and that’s why we really need them to listen to us.”

In the meantime, it is no exaggeration to describe girls’ daily lives as a gauntlet of sexism and harassment. I regularly speak to girls in their early teens who are simply used to being called “slut” or “slag”, and describe being groped or harassed in the playground or on their journey to school as “normal”. The Girlguiding survey is a shocking snapshot of what girls say they are dealing with.

What matters now is whether or not we listen.

We should realise the severity of the problem and take real action before it is too late. As Rae told me, “If you tell someone they’re a second-class citizen, if you tell them they’re inferior to men enough times, they will start to believe it.”