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This year, International Day of the Girl (11 October) will focus on the theme, "EmPOWER girls: Before, during and after conflict". Every 10 minutes, somewhere in the world, an adolescent girl dies as a result of violence. Here in the US, one out of four girls is sexually abused. It's estimated that one in four women in college experience assault before graduation.

Also here in the US, the confirmation of Bret Kavanaugh showed girls and women, that the leaders in charge of America think sexual assault is no big deal. At least not big enough to disqualify you from the highest seat in the land.

I personally don't believe Kavanaugh. Too many flaws in his story. But even if he didn't do what Dr. Ford said he did, his angry demeanor, laced with rude, self-righteous indignation, barking back at Senators, should disqualify him. In his Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, he himself admitted he went over the line. Justice Stevens had it right: Kavanaugh is not qualified to sit on the court.

But in fact, his behavior was rewarded. "I think if he hadn't done what he did, he wouldn't be on the court," said Lamar Alexander. That may be. But let a woman try it and see what would happen.

There is no doubt that the #MeToo movement has been the most successful campaign in years and has gained overwhelming public support. Despite this, there are still aspects of sexual harassment and abuse perpetrated against girls and women that haven't budged under the weight of the #MeToo movement. The roots of the problem lie in the thick cultural context. It needs a quantum shift.

And this is a teachable moment.

The way we understand and interpret the meaning of sexual abuse emerges out of more general and accepted ideas about women. In other words, ideas like “women really want it” and "I can grab any bleep I want", are related to larger patterns of gender socialization and what's acceptable in our society. Girls and women continually get messages from all corners--- leaders, traditional and new media, that they are the less powerful sex, that they are emotionally weaker than males, and that they are sexual objects to be used for male pleasure seeking and status. In fact, our social values tell us over and over again that women's primary value resides in their sexual appeal to men: the pervasive sexuality of images of women in the media, the pay gap, the lack of women in corporate and political leadership---we constantly receive the message that to be female is to be less.

These traditional views of women shape girls’ and women's experiences of sexual assault and abuse and the aftermath. It makes them afraid to speak up, to feel somehow responsible, to feel shame and often distance themselves from their own sexuality.

The cultural pressure on women to be desirable, to be responsible for male sexuality and to renounce their own sexual agency makes women more vulnerable to thinking abuse is normal and somehow acceptable. These pressures make it difficult for women to accurately define (call it what it is) and feel outraged about forced sexual behaviors, to call rape “rape” and to demand redress and have an understanding of an event which has pernicious effects on their self-image and behavior. Nor are most girls encouraged to be confident or raise their voices, even when it's called for.

The Girls Inc. teaching

We help girls discover that they have a right to speak up. In Girls Inc. programs, girls learn to value, take care of and protect themselves, in contrast with an upbringing that often tells them their primary role is to take care of men and bear children. Much of women's place in society has economic roots: often girls are raised to be economically dependent. They're not raised to have their own checkbook or to pay their own bills or to save and invest. Research shows a connection between violence toward women and girls and economic insecurity. The safety and economic security of women and girls is a huge factor in preventing sexual harassment and abuse. Although domestic violence occurs across socio-economic lines, women without financial resources are seven-times more likely to be battered or abused than women in higher income categories, according to FLOW (the financial literacy organization for women and girls).

Girls Inc. aims to change those ingrained values. Ingrained instead in the girls we serve are the vital importance of financial independence (a man is not a financial plan), the essential foundation of self-love, self-esteem, the right to pursue their dreams and how to protect themselves through nonviolent martial arts. They tell us their greatest fear: they don't feel safe in their communities, their schools and sometimes their homes.

The key: the girls we serve know we value them. Unconditionally.

Many women will tell you---even to this day---- boys are more valued in their families. Feeling less valued, less independent, less confident, less able to raise your voice, and less sure of your protection under the law all contribute to being more susceptible to victimization, to being less likely to recognize sexual abuse when it happens, more likely to accept it as justified in some distorted way, and less likely to respond to it with outrage.

We are a part of our environment. We can't separate a girl's or a woman's experience of sexual harassment or sexual assault from the values of the environment where it's experienced. The values that weave together our social fabric must be changed. Making #MeToo confessions and pronouncements isn't enough. But it's a start. Organizations like Girls Inc. of New York City will be the strategic platforms that keep the momentum of the #MeToo movement alive, and create the change, in girls and women----in ourselves first----that says: no more. We will not stand for any more sexual harassment, abuse, mistreatment of any kind, anymore.

But for that to hold any water, we must embark on cultural change. The 42% of women, most of them white, came out to support Trump, and largely for economic reasons. The Trump campaign tapped into fears and frustrations among white working class women about diminished possibilities for their husbands and sons to provide for their families. Among this segment of voters, a man is still a financial plan.

If women are to achieve the equality they seek, education and financial independence are the two vital building blocks of a three-legged stool need for self-confidence, achievement, and respect. That's what the transformation to gender equality will take, and what Girls Inc. is all about. The third leg of the stool is about raising our voices in the advocacy and political action arenas. This is the time for us to take action and support candidates who will work to put an end to violence against women and girls, for equality for women and girls and the common good, instead of the old patriarchy, where males hold the primary power and predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege.

Enough is enough.

To help us shape a broader strategy to achieve equality, join us at our upcoming event: Tipping the Scales: the Rights of Women and Girls in a #MeToo World.

December 4, 2018

Midtown, Manhattan

Click here to RSVP:


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