In the last few days, I’ve been struck once again by the resilience of women.
I had the privilege of launching Natasha Stott Despoja’s new book about the scourge of family violence, I heard from the Children’s Commissioner of Victoria about the work they do to give girls a decent start at life, and heard from two wonderful organisations looking at women’s health and wellbeing.
These shining lights of research and action are the hope we need to improve the lives of girls and young women all over this country. Burnet Institute is conducting a long term study into young women’s health, and Foyer Foundation is a quiet, but vital, player in the world of youth homelessness.
In times of difficulty in my life, my father would invoke the airforce motto, Per Ardua Ad Astra, which means, through adversity to the stars. This week, and today of all days, this maxim rang loudly in my ears.
As we mark this International Women’s Day I am reminded that it’s a time to scrutinise our experience as women, but also to take stock of women’s innate strength, and celebrate all those girls and young women who thrive against all odds.
I want to share the story of a young woman, Chrissy. To me she is nothing less than extraordinary and her story demonstrates the power of organisations like Foyer Foundation.
Foyer Foundation is a national not-for-profit organisation that works on the deep challenge of youth homelessness and unemployment in Australia.
Now in her 20s, Chrissy was unable to live at home due to family violence, which caused severe mental health challenges for her.
She enrolled in Foyer student accommodation – which provided a safe, stable and secure home, and allowed her to concentrate on her studies and mental health, free from violence.
“Since early childhood my life has had many difficulties, but with the right support I have been able to develop my strengths and face my future with confidence as a young Indigenous woman in Australia.”
Today, she’s the principal carer for her siblings and a talented contemporary artist who has just been awarded a business scholarship to improve her career opportunities in the art world.
Hearing Chrissy’s story was a full circle moment for me.
This week I also attended Burnet’s International Women’s Day lunch with my daughter and my niece, and listened to their brilliant researchers. We were riveted by Liana Buchanan, the Victorian Principal Commissioner for Children and Young People.
Burnet is the organisation who is building the primary evidence through long-term research about young people’s health and well-being. Since 2005 they have been conducting a landmark survey – Sex, Drugs, & Rock ‘n’ Roll – to understand the health and key issues affecting young people in Australia – analysing data from more than 15,000 study participants. Their work has been wide-ranging, from risk behaviours, how these have changed over time, to alcohol and drug use, mental health and the impact of digital media. These highlight a stark reality of being a young woman in this country.
Their 2018 survey provides an excellent snapshot of the pressures girls and young women face today, with an alarming 60 per cent of respondents not satisfied with their physical appearance and 46 per cent following “fitspo” accounts (fit inspiration).
Today our girls must hurdle the pressures of the real world, but also an uncontrollable digital world – one where approval and criticism comes in the forms of likes and followers – with tools to edit how you look in extreme ways.
My girls face more pressures than their mother and grandmothers, in a world that demands more of them.
One of the greatest challenges for a parent is to balance that fine line between protecting your children, and letting them explore the world on their own.
This used to be something that centred around the school yard – letting your kids fight their own battles versus when to step in, wondering when they were old enough for their first solo trip to the shops with friends.
But in the modern world, it’s all about the digital age, and omnipresent social media. Our generations had to fight the stereotypes of Barbie’s looks, but this generation has to fight the onslaught of the online consumer juggernaut that is the Kardashians.
Our girls are plugged into instant feedback, but this hyper connectivity has opened the door to the risk of a new type of isolation.
It’s a known fact that girls deal with bullying and harassment, but in the digital world there is no escape from it – even in the confines of their own home.
A key lesson from Liana Buchanan is that we need to understand girls’ experience, and it means we need to give them the tools to autonomously shape their future. While girls are statistically more likely to do well at school and complete secondary education –this isn’t translating into economic security in adult life due to the gender pay gap and a disparity where women still do the bulk of unpaid work such as caring for children and elderly relatives.
On International Women’s Day we celebrate how far we have come, but shine a light on how much we have left to do.
Meaningful, permanent progress is always hard work, and along the way there will be stories of women overcoming adversity they never should have had to face.
Our work will not be complete, until we live in a world where our daughters have the same opportunities as our sons. So that they too, take their place as stars in the firmament.