Bad and abusive relationships are not the preserve of disadvantaged teenage girls. Women from every background and education level are in relationships with people who make them feel small, useless and trapped.
Why do women fall into bad relationships? Why do women feel that they “need” a man?
Across time and space women have desired to marry and have children; yes, sometimes those marriages have been forced or abusive, but the number of bridal Pinterest boards suggests that marriage is still an aspiration for many. It is a natural aspiration, but one that schools teach girls as being “wrong” at worst and inferior at best – it is not a career. At the same time, girls are exposed to an onslaught of gendered toys, “pink princesses” and sexualised “role models” creating a dangerous tension. To navigate it, we must ask: who do we want our young girls to be?
We want girls to set the bar high and to believe that they can get there. We want girls to have the confidence to raise their hands in class and play sports passionately. We want girls who are allowed to dream of getting married and having children, who know what a healthy relationship looks like, and can choose the right partner if they choose to pursue one. We want young women to think big and know how to make fulfilling decisions.
How will we do this? Love. It’s hard for girls to feel confident and secure in themselves if they aren’t loved. Equally, it is really hard for girls to know what a good relationship looks like if they don’t have any examples. If your parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles are in dysfunctional, fragmented or abusive relationships – if you are one of the approximately 10% of children whose parents split up before you were born[i] – how do you know what love looks like? It is not the gooey sentiment seen in films or the hot steaminess sung about by chart-toppers but to see that you are worth making sacrifices for (and vice versa). This is further aggravated when one considers that the Millennium Cohort Study has shown that severe mental ill-health is considerably higher in children living in single-parent or, especially, step and other family types, as compared to those living with both natural parents[ii]. Socioeconomic factors aside, children with poor mental health are less likely to make positive decisions about sex and relationships and more likely to take risks[iii]. Without another template, even the security of an abusive relationship can seem better than none at all. Relationship education in schools should progress from a focus on avoiding STDs and pregnancy; let’s help young women to aspire to have fulfilling relationships, to recognise what they are and to show them that they are worthy of love. For many young women, one-to-one support would be more effective than any type or amount of sex ed or information found online.
We need to make time to be there for young people. Before the internet many teens got relationship advice from problem pages in magazines. Now they have access to limitless information (and porn) without having the emotional maturity and life experience to make informed judgments about its reliability. Teens and tweens are often embarrassed to discuss relationships with their parents, but that doesn’t mean that the internet should be their sounding-board. Good sibling and extended family relationships can really help, but when these don’t exist, mentors can help to fill the gap.
A successful example is The Baytree Centre in Lambeth, a Wonder Foundation local partner. Their PEACH programme supports both parents and daughters to build better relationships with each other. Parents, many born overseas, are given insight into the new and challenging environments which their daughters are trying to navigate. Parents can neither protect their children nor prepare them for the future if they are unaware of the challenges they face daily. Each girl has a mentor who provides academic support and discusses personal matters, including aspirations and relationships.
We should invest in preventative interventions. We cannot (and would not want to) force parents to live together, but we can offer parenting courses and relationship counselling so that they can better nurture their daughters. Adolescent risk-taking is more likely to reduce thanks to mentoring and, where necessary, counselling, than from classes on safe sex.
Community programmes like this are possible, but even when mentors are volunteers, the training that they need to support girls costs money. What we know is that when young women thrive, the difference it makes to their families and communities is worth every penny of that investment.
WONDER's mission is to empower vulnerable communities worldwide through education.
We work with partner projects that primarily support women and act as a stimulus for ending poverty in their families and communities.
[i] Benson, H., 2010 http://www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk/UserStorage/pdf/Pdf%20reports/FamilyBreakdownIsNotAboutDivorce.pdf
[ii] Gutman, L.M., H. Joshi, M. Parsonage & I. Schoon (2015) “Children of the new century: Mental Health findings from the Millennium Cohort Study”. file:///C:/Users/Wonder%20New/Downloads/Children_of_the_new_century%20(1).pdf