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

Girls' Government: Empowering Young Women to be Change Makers

Tanya Ferro

In early March 2016, I learned about a program called Girls’ Government and immediately applied. I had spent the years previous developing a girls’ leadership program in my school, so this program seemed like a natural extension. In three years, the Rolling Meadows Girls’ Leadership Club expanded from eight Grade 8 girls to over 50 girls from grades 1 to 8 and six teachers. Girls’ Government was a perfect fit with the girls’ leadership program. It would be a great opportunity for girls to learn about the impact they can have through politics and to consider how more equal representation of women in government could change the ways our governments work and the issues they address. What would it look like if women accounted for 50 percent of legislators instead of 25 percent? What impact would that have on how we prioritize the needs of women locally, nationally and internationally? What would it mean for issues like gender-based violence, pay equity and affordable childcare?

Girls’ Government is a provincial, non-partisan program conceived by NDP MPP Cheri Di Novo that encourages Grade 8 girls to get involved in government and in public policy. When we participated, the program had been redeveloped by Nancy Coldham, now founder of the EVE Society, with full permission and involvement of DiNovo. The program was changed to include a full curriculum guide for teachers, additional resources available from the EVE website and certificates of completion for each Grade 8 girl. The relaunched Girls’ Government program has also been endorsed by the Premier, Minister of Women’s Issues and received full support from of all three political parties. Each year, there is an official annual Girls’ Government Day held at Queen’s Park. The program connects MPP mentors with girls in their ridings. The MPPs support students as they develop, write and present a proposal on an important issue to the Minister of Women’s Issues and the two opposition critics at Queen’s Park. By participating in Girls’ Government, girls get the opportunity to do research, advocate for an issue that they believe in and learn about the need for women’s voices in government.

Women are underrepresented at every level of government. According to Equal Voice, in May 2011, women represented over 50 percent of Canada’s population, but comprised an average of 25 percent of Canada’s municipal councils, provincial legislatures and the House of Commons. The girls who participate in Girls’ Government learn about careers in government and are challenged to think about meaningful ways that they can participate in changing policy. According to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW), women’s participation in government is essential. Polls show that women care about different issues. “A critical mass of at least 30 percent women is needed before legislatures produce public policy that represents women’s concerns and before political institutions begin to change the way they do business.”

This fact is extremely important to convey to girls. According to the UNCSW, while globally the number of women in parliament has doubled since 1995, women still only account for 22 percent of national parliamentarians. As of January 2017, Rwanda, at 68 percent, has the greatest percentage of women parliamentarians worldwide. Ensuring that women are represented equally in government can result in positive outcomes for all people: “Women demonstrate political leadership by working across party lines through parliamentary women’s caucuses – even in the most politically combative environments – and by championing issues of gender equality, such as the elimination of gender-based violence, parental leave and childcare, pensions, gender-equality laws and electoral reform.” In Norway, for example, the number of women in municipal government directly correlated with childcare coverage.

I was elated to hear that our local MPP Eleanor McMahon had selected Rolling Meadows Public School for the program. She would guide 16 girls through the writing of a proposal on an issue of importance to be presented to members of the provincial government and would accompany them to Queen’s Park in April to do so. I asked my colleague and teaching partner, Sandra Lumsden, to join me in working on this amazing project. Together we chose 16 girls from a diversity of backgrounds and from both the English and French Immersion programs. As our timeline was quite short, only five weeks until Girls’ Government Day at Queen’s Park, we let teachers know the next day which girls had been selected and asked that they be sent down to the library at lunch for a meeting.

There, we explained the program, the requirements and the reasons they were chosen. We told them they would write a proposal, while being mentored by MPP McMahon, to be presented at Queen’s Park to the Minister of Women’s Issues and the two opposition critics. We explained that we had chosen girls with different backgrounds so they could research, interpret and analyze information through different lenses and perspectives. They were more than excited to take part and exploded with happy chatter! Through their participation in this program, I wanted the girls to learn that effort and hard work are worthwhile and important. I wanted to empower every girl to know she has a voice, her individual and group contributions can bring about positive change in government and, most of all, she is a leader. At this first meeting, we discussed the issues surrounding sexual violence and harassment. We shared statistics and asked them to brainstorm and identify sub-topics that were important to include in their proposal. They identified several important issues, but decided that “Sexual Assault, Violence and Harassment Against Women” was the issue that they felt most passionately about.

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