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women and girls posing with political leaders
Photo Courtesy MPP Cheri Dinovo
Feature

Girls' Government: Empowering Young Women to be Change Makers

Tanya Ferro
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Once the topic was chosen, we asked them to break it down. They identified three main areas: education – better education was needed in schools through the Ontario health curriculum; support – more support was needed in terms of outreach programs to educate students and adults; and services – better access to counselling was needed for survivors. We divided the girls into three teams to research each of these sub-topics.

Over the following five weeks, Sandra and I held meetings in the school library three times a week during lunch to guide the research and writing for the proposal. The teams learned everything they could about current laws, prevention programs, treatment programs and campaigns in Ontario geared toward sexual violence and harassment against women. The girls worked in Google Docs so that they could do individual research and writing and collaborate by contributing to one common document.

The first group investigated the current health curriculum in Ontario and evaluated whether anything could be added to improve the education of students around harassment and violence against women. They read the Ontario health curriculum document for each grade and looked at curriculum documents from other provinces to compare their curriculum to ours. They decided the Ontario health curriculum could introduce the topic of violence against women as early as Grade 1 and students in grades 1 to 12 should be educated about the dangers of violence against women. They proposed adding more resources for teachers to the current curriculum and more explicit instructions on the types of questions teachers could ask students to encourage discussion.

The second group looked at the outreach programs that currently exist in Ontario and evaluated their effectiveness, particularly in educating boys and men about harassment and violence against women. Although they identified some education being delivered in Ontario through outreach programs, more was definitely needed. They felt passionately that boys and men needed to be better educated about the meaning of consent and about the role men and boys play in preventing sexual assault and harassment of women. They called for improvements in outreach programs and asked the government to invest in building more outreach centres and staffing them with more full-time positions.

They also asked the government to continue to run its advertising campaign regarding consent for another year.

The third group researched the mental health of children who witness sexual assault and violence in the home. They looked at the current supports in place for these children and were surprised to discover that Ontario does not have nearly enough support and resources for children. Research indicated that the counselling a child is provided with to recover, physically and mentally, from witnessing violence in the home is insufficient. The students asked the government to build more support centres in high demand areas of Ontario and to increase the number of weeks a child can access counselling at these centres.

Once the proposal was written, we asked the girls to practice the presentation they would deliver at Queen’s Park. They practiced many times to improve their voice quality, fluency, expression and eye contact. MPP Eleanor McMahon came in to meet with the girls as the end of the five weeks drew near to listen to their proposal and offer feedback. It just so happened that MPP McMahon had been a member of the Select Committee on Sexual Violence and Harassment for the Legislative Assembly of Ontario the year before. The Select Committee was tasked in December 2014 with providing recommendations to the Ontario Legislature on the prevention of sexual assault and harassment in the province and on the improvement of responses currently in place after incidents of sexual violence and harassment occurred. This committee presented its final report to Queen’s Park in December 2015.

Three girls presented the proposal to her and she offered great feedback and suggestions on ways to improve their writing by adding details, researching more statistics and clarifying their recommendations and the specific steps the girls wanted the government to take. The girls added the suggested details and statistics and made the other necessary changes and were ready for the culmination of their hard work, presenting their proposal at Queen’s Park for the Minister Responsible for Women’s Issues, the Hon. Tracy MacCharles, and the two opposition critics, MPP Peggy Sattler and MPP Laurie Scott.

On April 12, 2016, Sandra and I met the girls at school at 7:00 a.m. They buzzed with excitement as they boarded the bus. We set out on our way for an experience of a lifetime. Once we arrived at Queen’s Park and were checked through security, it was time to present to MPP Tracy MacCharles. We all entered her office and the four girls chosen to present began. They spoke confidently and passionately about their feelings and ideas around sexual assault and harassment by referring to the research they had done and the recommendations they had decided upon. They presented their findings on the current Ontario health curriculum and recommended that more discussion questions and resources on the dangers of harassment, assault and violence against women be provided.

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