The War Against Girls and Young Women Nari Rhee looks at oppressive systems in the home, in schools, and in society at large. During a speech sponsored by the Institute for American Values in December 1993, deputy director of domestic policy William Galston decried the "relaxation of social, moral, and cultural stigmas against out-of-wedlock births." This February, the Clinton administration declared an "all-out culture-based war" against unwed teen pregnancy. But there is already an "all-out culture-based war"-- not only against teen pregnancy, but against girls and young women. Studies by researchers, including psychologist Carol Gilligan's groundbreaking work on girls and self esteem, reveal that girls' lives are fraught with contradictions. On the one hand, media fantasies depict the modern woman who enjoys a lucrative professional career and ample opportunity. On the other hand, stark realities prepare girls for a life of disadvantage. The high school drop out rate for teen women in urban centers is often as high as 60 percent. But problems persist even when girls stay in school. They are harassed on a daily basis while most teachers and administrators simply stand by in complicity. The widely-cited report, Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America, by the American Association of University Women, paints a bleak picture of how schools play a key role in perpetuating women's disadvantage in the work world. Girls consistently receive less attention and encouragement than do boys from teachers and are discouraged from pursuing math and science. Very few girls are enrolled in training programs for high-skill, technical jobs Instead, they are steered into marginal career paths that guarantee a lifetime of poverty wages. According to a recent survey by Girls, Inc. of San Leandro, a major problem for girls from low income backgrounds is stress from family crises such as alcoholism and unemployment. Girls are also at higher risk for sexual abuse, which is correlated with substance abuse, prostitution and other problems later in life. In society at large, media bombard girls with images that tell them that they will be unworthy and unlovable unless they consume a battery of products ranging from cosmetics to diet shakes to designer jeans. Beauty and promises of some handsome prince are held for ransom in the form of the consumer dollar. They are told to "just say no" to sex, and then pressured to be sexy. On the public agenda, girls and young women are invisible except when attention zeros in on teenage mothers as the great scourge of society and a drain on public coffers. Contrary to conventional wisdom, over half of girls who drop out of school do so for reasons other than pregnancy. Poverty and poverty-related family problems, not teenage pregnancy per se, are the primary reasons why girls drop out of school. Teen pregnancy itself is a problem because young women are systematically channeled into jobs that guarantee poverty, or no jobs at all, and because of the stigma attached to teen pregnancy -- not because it's a reflection of "moral deficiency." The rhetoric of morality only serves to dehumanize economically disadvantaged young women. ARE EDUCATION AND JOB TRAINING CURE-ALLS? The need for girls and young to receive better education and training for high-wage jobs is well- recognized. Among programs that answer this need are programs that help girls to excel in math and science, preparing them for the much-touted "high wage, high skill" job market. Other steps include training teachers to avoid both overt and subtle sexism in their instruction. These are necessary steps. But these programs also reflect the usual limits of working through existing institutions and do not raise broader systemic issues. The push to include girls in math, science, and technical job training programs has largely been driven by predictions that by the year 2000, two out of three new entrants into the labor force will be women. This figure has been used to argue to both business and government that it is good for the economy (read: good for businesses) to have girls trained for skilled jobs. The ultimate purpose of corporate and government initiatives to train girls is to make more efficient use of them as resources and to beef up the labor pool. Students will not be encouraged to question the economic structures that decide which jobs are created -- the very jobs for which they are being trained. The system will continue to generate low-wage jobs with no security that are reserved for women and people of color. While education and training will give some young women access to greater income , they will hardly liberate girls and young women as a class. Other questions remain to be asked as schools attempt to prepare young women (and men) for the workforce: Will they be taught about workers' rights, health and safety, and the need for work to change to accommodate family life? Will young women be alerted to the widespread reality of sexual harassment and be taught how to file a complaint against an offending employer? WHAT IS REALLY NEEDED Girls and young women need more institutional support to deal with their immediate problems; access to information to be able to contextualize their lives; and training and skills development to begin mobilizing themselves around the issues that affect them. The following are some good examples of how each of these needs might be met. Few programs address girls' lives as comprehensively as Girls, Inc. of San Leandro (GISL). Through a wide spectrum of services and education, the organization helps girls understand their lives in the context of poverty, racism, and sexism and gives them the tools to build a future for themselves and their communities. The program staff work at 18 schools counseling girls about sexuality, and helping them in stay in school, plan careers, and excel at math and science. The organization takes a holistic approach to addressing issues that affect girls -- for example, teenage sexuality and pregnancy. Staff begin with nine-year-olds, talking about their bodies and about how to communicate with their families. Girls in middle school learn skills for avoiding early sexual involvement. In "Taking Care of Business," high school girls don't just talk about contraceptives. "They think about careers, life plans, and other things in life besides having a boyfriend," says Pat Loomes. If they do have children, the School Age Mothers program provides child care, parenting classes, and a high school diploma. While GISL, as a mainstream service organization, is constrained from taking "radical" tactics, it does enable girls to formulate their own agenda and act to change the forces that affect their lives. Last year, a group of GISL participants organized the Teen Leadership Summit. At this day long event, over 50 teenage women explored issues around women's reproductive health, sexism, women at work, and violence against women. At the day's end, they lobbied the attending local politicians for mandatory ethnic studies, date-rape counseling, and contraceptives at school campuses. Most girls don't have the information or the context to begin recognizing and naming their oppression. One of the few sources of accessible information about girls' experience is Teen Voices magazine, published out of Boston by Women Express and written by women in their teens and early twenties. The magazine covers issues such as violence against women, substance abuse, racism, reproductive rights, women's health, lesbianism/bisexuality, workforce issues, and more. There are few organizing efforts in junior high and high schools that address girls' and young women's' issues. There is a clear need for organizations that specifically target girls and young women for political education, leadership development, and s kills training. One such organization is Students Organizing Students (SOS), a national organization based in New York. SOS runs Students Keeping Issues Linked Leadership Semester (SKILLS), a leadership development program for high school women. Workshops draw the connections between social issues such as racism, sexism, and homophobia. Students also learn organizing and fundraising skills. They then apply their new knowledge through projects like videos and pamphlets on teen violence and pregnancy. Finally, women's organizations must devote more attention and resources to ally with girls. There are several ways in which this can happen. Women's organizations can: 1. Foster the leadership of teen women within their own organizations; 2. Offer resources, such as in-kind contributions and technical assistance, to young women's efforts to organize; 3. Encourage members to make it a practice to bring their daughters, including younger girls, to meetings and other activities; and 4. Recognize the integral link between girls' realities and women's realities -- a link which is often ignored. Overall, there needs to be greater awareness of the issues raised above, both among girls and among the public at large. Significant resources should be devoted to helping girls develop resilience and resistance. We must turn the tables and address the real problem: the systems that oppress girls, at home, in schools, and in society at large.