On International Women's Day 2018, I wanted to write something about our Generation Girls programme, which is one of the Peer Productions projects of which I am most proud. It’s the participatory project which has personally moved me the most. It is a programme from which I have learned a great deal.
The premise is simple: an exclusively female team of theatre practitioners and peer educators run a drama programme for a group of girls who might benefit from a safe space. Over the past few years, we have worked with girls with low honfidence, girls with learning disabilities, girls at risk of sexual exploitation and girls involved in the criminal justice system.
Those of you who know me, or my work, might be surprised that, as someone who endeavours to advocate inclusive practice, I'm championing a programme that only seeks to work with girls.
Let me explain.
This programme is, and will remain, exclusively for young women and girls. That raises the question, what is a young woman or girl? If we sign up, and I do, to the idea that there are not two genders and that a binary understanding is reductive and unhelpful, how can we, at the same time, run a girl’s group?
It doesn’t make sense, right?
Except it does. Thus far the programme has been rolled out for specific young women who have been identified by their families, partner charities or schools. All of these young women were assigned female at birth.
Could the programme work for a young woman or girl who was assigned male at birth? Of course.
Would a trans woman or girl be welcomed? Yes.
Would we run a programme exclusively for young trans women? Yes.
The programme is adaptable. The sessions are tailored to the needs of the group. We didn’t run exactly the same sessions with girls with learning disabilities as we did with girls involved in the criminal justice system. With our learning disabled girls, some of our sessions focussed on understanding our bodies and puberty, including periods. This part of the session would be different if the group included, or was exclusively, women assigned male at birth.
But if we don’t believe in gender, why run a girl’s programme at all?
The women and girls with whom we worked experience so keenly what it means to be female on a daily basis. It’s hard wired into their perceptions of themselves, and that in turn is heavily influenced by how others see them.
We know that not all, but the vast majority of victims of rape and sexual abuse are women and girls. We know, for example, that girls with learning disabilities are amongst those most at risk of sexual exploitation and that these girls are often in schools where, partly because autism is more prevalent in boys, they are in the significant minority. Many go to school further away from their homes, so can miss out on having a like minded peer group. For some of those girls, our Generation Girls programme provided a safe space in which they were able to think about what being a woman or a girl meant to them. Working with peer educators as role models, they were able to find the courage and their voice to talk about the issues that mattered most to them. I don’t think they would have felt safe to that in a mixed gender group.
I’ll leave you with a little play. It’s a real conversation I overheard between a 16 year-old member of one of our GG groups and one of our brilliant 18 year-old peer educators. This was around Week 4 of a 10-week programme.
Participant: I did it!
Peer Educator: What?
Participant: I didn’t like it, so I told him no like you said.
Peer Educator: Who?
Participant: My boyfriend.
Peer Educator: And was it ok?
Participant: Yeah, we just watched TV instead.
(They high five)
Happy International Women’s Day from everyone at Peer Productions.