Danger in ignoring violence in girls

LYN HUMPHREYS
Last updated 05:00 21/05/2012

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New Zealand ignores the increasing violence among teenage girls at their peril – because these are the mothers of the next generation, says Dr Donna Swift.

The Nelson-based social anthropologist is the author of a two-year research project, The Girls' Project, which investigated violent and anti-social young women in her region.

"We need to recognise that these young girls are going to be the mothers of the next generation," Dr Swift told the Taranaki Daily News.

Following on from the investigation, Dr Swift's aim now is to put a halt to the cycle of violence by sharing her knowledge throughout the country.

As a host of Taranaki's Soroptimist International group, she will talk to parents – and others with an interest in raising girls – at a public meeting at 7pm at the Devon Hotel in New Plymouth on May 30.

She will also address an earlier meeting with the professionals.

While most girls will not resort to violence and other anti-social behaviour such as binge drinking, promiscuity and cyber bullying, there is an urgent need to address the reasons why some are.

"I'm a really strong advocate for social workers in schools," she said.

The role is necessary because of the burgeoning social problem seen in schools which was drawing teachers away from their core role of teaching.

"Keeping our girls in school is very important. Once they can leave school ... you have lost them. School has to be stable for them or they are on the streets."

In social worker-speak, Dr Swift says New Zealand lacks programmes and understanding of girls that are gender-specific, gender-responsive and trauma-informed.

In translation, Dr Swift says money needs to be put into developing programmes which will specifically address girls' violence in the knowledge that the reasons girls are violent is radically different from boys.

Currently, programmes on how to deal with teen violence are aimed at boys, who make up 70 per cent of offenders who come to the attention of police.

But the project revealed there was a definite increase in more aggressive behaviour in girls and that they were becoming violent at a younger age.

Girls were modelling themselves on the "kick-ass" sexualised and aggressive female role models glorified in the media, she said.

"The presentation will be full of tips on how to help girls' resilience so they don't go down the path of violent behaviour and how to stop the competition between girls that is behind attracting popularity."

The girls should be taught to be assertive rather than turning to aggression. They should also be given ways to work through the challenges.

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"It's making sure we, as adults, parents, teachers, don't condone that."

Dr Swift said the workshops were getting real support from schools and the research was attracting widespread interest. Judges, police and teachers were among those wanting to know more about the pressures girls face.

Girls were experiencing those pressures as they were tending to mature earlier.

"It's not her fault that her body has developed that way. She's a child and she's trying to deal with the changes of puberty and the attention from the opposite sex. They have the body of an adult, they have access to everything ... alcohol, the media influences ... but they have the minds of children," she said.

"They dress like they are 18, they look 18, but they only have the mind of a 13-year-old. They are just girls."

At the same time, girls were saying they wanted more attention from their parents.

"They want their parents in their lives, they want parents that show concern, that are interested."

But some parents were too busy sorting out their own baggage rather than being good parents, Dr Swift said.

- Taranaki Daily News

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