“We wanted to create a space where girls felt valued for what they were saying, where they felt listened to and acknowledged,” says Sarah Winkler-Reid, Lecturer in Social Anthropology at Newcastle University.
Sarah studies the everyday lives of young people growing up in the UK, becoming immersed in their world and looking beyond negative media representations of them. “Field work is kind of a deep hang-out,” she explains. “I spent a lot of time in lessons, following timetables and hanging out at break times… seeing the things that often happen away from adult eyes, such as friendships and peer dynamics. That’s what I ended up writing about.”
When she took up her post at Newcastle University in 2015, Sarah began thinking about girls in the region and how their experiences might differ from girls she’d previously studied in London. She was soon introduced to an academic with similar research interests, Dr Sarah Ralph from Northumbria University. In 2016, charity Plan International released a study suggesting that life expectancy, reproductive health and educational outcomes for girls in a number of places in the North-East were among the worst in the UK. Sarah and Sarah saw an opportunity to team up and explore the issues from the perspective of North-East girls.
“There are still all kinds of social and economic inequalities and challenges in the North-East, but we don’t want to assume that just because people are showing up on statistics, that in some way defines who they are,” Sarah W-R says.
It’s an opportunity to think about things differently and express yourself without being judged
They devised Girl-Kind – a series of workshops, culminating in a celebration on UN International Day of the Girl. “We have two workshops before the celebration,” says Sarah W-R. “We wanted the project not to have a problem centred focus. It starts with an open question about the challenges and opportunities of being a girl in the North-East, then thinking about what the girls want people to know about it – all the positive stuff, as well as the negative stuff that often gets reported.”
In the workshops, girls raised issues including double standards in school uniform policy, street harassment and gendered language. “They’re so articulate,” Sarah W-R says. “They’re so clear about what they think is unfair. They’re righteously annoyed by it and thinking about how things can be different. This is all coming out because of their own understanding and their own thinking, so it helps them realise how much they have to say and how much they know.”
Conversation also turned to their experiences of living in the North-East. “They’re very conscious of how the North-East is seen,” Sarah W-R says. “They talk a lot about how people make assumptions about everyone in the North-East. They have a lot of pride in where they live, and I think that’s important. There’s all this stuff that makes it really nice to live here that they really value.”
In groups, the girls turned their discussions into something creative – posters, dances, banners, T-shirts and a short film that was later nominated for a North East Young Filmmakers Award. They presented their creations to friends and family at a special event for International Day of the Girl, spreading their ideas beyond the Girl-Kind workshops.
“We’re planning on doing it every year,” says Sarah W-R. “As we develop, we want the girls who did it last year to come back and introduce it to the girls doing it this year.”
Last year, the two Sarahs asked participants to do a short survey on their Girl-Kind experience. They discovered the girls felt more confident talking to their peers about their lives and expressing ideas to adults after taking part in the workshops and the celebration.
In 2018, they have expanded Girl-Kind’s reach. They’re returning to the two Tyne and Wear schools they went to last year and working with two more, while partners run further workshops with schools in Middlesbrough. Girls from every school will then come together for the International Day of the Girl celebration on the first weekend of October. There’ll be poetry, music and circus performances and a special film screening and discussion at the Tyneside Cinema.
Sarah W-R says: “Hopefully it will be a really fun celebration of being a girl!”
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