By Melissa Lauber
The Ute Indians have a poem: "I am the woman child who holds up the sky. The rainbow runs through my eyes. The sun makes a path to my womb. My thoughts are in the shape of clouds. But my words are yet to come."
On Nov. 21, the U.S. Government took a second look at the words yet to be spoken by tomorrow's women and decided drastic action had to be taken. "Sugar and spice," and all the other nice things that girls are supposedly made of, had become toxic. It was time for Girl Power!
This national campaign, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), is aimed at galvanizing public support to encourage and empower 9- to 14- year old girls make the most of their lives.
HHS Secretary Donna E. Shalala launched Girl Power! at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association in New York City.
"Too many girls are taking dangerous chances with the only lives they will ever have. We hope to reach girls at this key transitional age when they are forming their values and attitudes. Our job as caring adults is to help girls build confidence and pursue opportunities," Shalala said.
Explaining the need for this program, Shalala cited reports that "nearly half of all American adolescents are at high or moderate risk of seriously damaging their life chances."
A 1995 HHS study, for example, showed that ninth grade girls are nearly twice as likely as ninth grade boys to have thought seriously about attempting suicide in the past year (34.4 percent versus 18.2) and more than twice as likely to attempt suicide(14.9 percent versus 6.8 percent).
Statistics on substance abuse among girls is also becoming an alarming problem. A University of Michigan study, conducted in 1995, reports that daily cigarette use among eighth-grade girls jumped 48 percent between 1991 and 1995. Nearly one out of every ten eighth-grade girls (9.2 percent) is now a daily cigarette smoker.
Last year, 8.2 percent of eighth grade girls reported using marijuana in the past month, a figure which is up from 2.6 percent in 1991; and nearly one fourth (24 percent) of eighth grade girls say they consumed alcohol in the past month.
Those working with teenage girls also confront daily the statistic that 1 million girls each year become pregnant in the United States. The time between ages 9 and 14 is when most girls begin to develop their own personal views on sexuality. Experts look to the culture in which these girls are coming of age and find that they are being "bombarded with messages to stay thin, attract boys, and focus more on what others think of them than what they think of themselves," said Dr. Nelba Chavez, Administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services.
In her book "Reviving Ophelia" which has become a handbook of the times, Dr. Mary Pipher calls adolescent girls "saplings in a hurricane." Her book is a collage of hundreds of interviews with these girls, many of whom report "that everything good in me died in junior high school."
"Something dramatic happens to girls in early adolescence," Pipher wrote. "Just as planes and ships disappear mysteriously into the Bermuda Triangle, so do the selves of girls go down in droves. They crash and burn in a social and developmental Bermuda Triangle.
"In early adolescence, studies show that girls' IQ scores drop and their math and science scores plummet. They lose their resiliency and optimism and become less curious and inclined to take risks. They lose their assertive, energetic and 'tomboyish' personalities and become more deferential, self-critical and depressed." And our culture supports this, Pipher concludes. "America today is a girl-destroying place."
Girl Power! has plans to change all this. With more than 100 private and public partners, they intend to focus on education "with messages and materials designed to be appealing to girls and the adults who care about them," Shalala said. Schools, communities, religious organizations, health providers, and other caring adults are being called upon to use these resources to provide girls with positive messages and meaningful opportunities.
While churches are expected to be "an important part" in this campaign, spokespersons for HHS were unable to name any faith communities that played an integral role in the development of the Girl Power! resources.
This is disappointing, said Andrea Stephens, the beauty editor for Focus on the Family's Brio magazine for girls, especially since the church has answers that appeal to adolescent girls who are some of the most idealistic people in the universe. Anne Frank, Joan of Arc, and the Virgin Mary at the time she gave birth to Jesus, were all adolescent girls.
Stephens is the author of 10 books. Her two most recent, "I'm Glad You Know Where We're Going, Lord" and "The Importance of Being You," are geared toward adolescents.
"If we are telling these girls to 'just say no,' we have to give them something else to say yes to," Stephens said. "Girls today are trying to live up to an image and an appearance that is dictated to them by society. The church should be telling them, that it is not important how others view them. What is essential is how God views them. They are his handcrafted jewels. They are one of his works of art."
However, some, like Pipher, might argue that this is too simplistic an answer to give to adolescents, whose only constant is an intense and constantly changing sense of chaos.
But one common theme emerges from all parties seeking to empower tomorrow's women. Girls today, they agree, "need loving parents, decent values, useful information, friends, physical safety, freedom to move about independently, respect for their own uniqueness and encouragement to grow into productive adults."
When we, as a culture, are able to provide them with this, we will be able to sit back and listen to "the woman child who holds up the sky" and the words she is creating within herself.
Individuals and organizations who wish to participate in the Girl Power! campaign or receive materials can call 1-800-729-6686 (TDD 1-800-487-4889 or visit their site on the World Wide Web here.
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