DR ASHA PEMBERTON
Reports and news blasts globally continue to highlight inequities and disparities in the health and wellness of young women as compared to men. Last weekend we celebrated Mother’s Day, a day of specific recognition to women who mother, parent, guide and support their charges, whether biological or not. The many roles of women in society continue to grow, but how much attention do we pay to nurturing girls and young women? Do we recognise their specific needs, gender roles and societal expectations? How do we support changing dynamics of young culture as it relates to young women? Collectively, we can all help create an inclusive world. The foundation of a world free of gender bias begins with the ways in which we raise and support young women. A future of resilient women requires a present population of resilient girls, adolescents and young women.
We must recognise that from early childhood, girls and boys are not placed on a level playing field. Traditions in Caribbean parenting continue to enforce different expectations and ideals for girls compared to boys in some communities. Domestic roles and responsibilities remain “girls’ jobs” while boys are permitted the freedom to explore outdoor and technical activities. Through adolescence, girls are sometimes rigidly sheltered or discouraged from pursuing certain academic or employment goals, while teen males are given more liberty to discover their abilities or passions. Finally, there remains the underlying mind-set that adolescent girls should become home-makers even despite advances in their access to quality education. To begin, we must be mindful of our starting point.
Body image and self esteem
At the onset of puberty, tween and teen girls become very aware of their changing bodies. In our culture, there remains the unfortunate tendency of adults to publicly comment, sometimes in disparaging or pseudo-humorous ways about the developing female teen body. This practice simply must stop. The self-esteem of girls is closely connected to their body image and body acceptance. Adults need to be mindful of their language and desist from teasing or ridiculing the physical changes of adolescent girls. While in many instances, comments are not intended to be harmful, there must be recognition that the effect of words and laughter can be permanently damaging to self-esteem, and further lead to eating disorders and poor mental health.
Emotional health and wellness
Research has consistently reported that adolescent girls and women experience poor mental health in the forms of eating disorders, anxiety, depression and overall difficulties in adjustment. This in no way minimises the prevalence of mental health concerns in males and men, but should reinforce that mental wellness and emotional health are pillars of any movement to build resilience in girls and women. Young women are more likely to experience anxiety-related conditions than any other group.
As we gain insight and challenge the culture and norms of Tobagonian society, how can we improve mental wellness promotion? How well are we educating our girls and young women about the importance of emotional health and ways in which they can be resilient? Take a moment to consider your family and community. How can we challenge and change?
There are so many ways in which we can take forward advocacy, education, parenting and empowerment activities in our communities to support the resilience of girls and ensure equality for women. My final suggestion is simply to pause, reflect and assess your homes. Consider the girls, adolescents and women closest to you. Are there ways in which bias and inequities persist? Is it possible to make consistent changes towards improving our activities? As we shelter in place from the ravages of the pandemic, let us take time to consider the girls and young women in our lives and ways in which we can support their optimal development.