Being a young woman: Identity and safety

For International Women’s Day 2020, #iwill Ambassadors Charli and Atlanta consider the different aspects of their identities, and discuss how social action gives you – sometimes rare – spaces to be safe as a woman.

It’s important to think about the intersectional issues that can occur for different women on International Women’s Day – as a disabled, asexual, working class girl, it’s key for me to express how each of my identities affects my life. I’m invisibly disabled, so my illnesses are often not seen as valid. It’s questioned whether my sexuality fits into the LGBTQ+ community. I’m constantly aware of my dialect. I grew up in Birmingham, one of the biggest cities in the UK – one often seen as rife with crime. 

The vulnerability I can feel as a disabled women in the city is difficult and has caused me to feel anxious over the years. When I used mobility aids in town I would feel like there was a sign hanging over my head telling people I was an easy target. Now I’ve moved away to university, my Brummie accent has followed me, and I feel like my class and ability are often assumed. 

When I was ten, I joined the Scouts as the first girl Cub then Scout at the group – even though Scouting officially became mixed a few years earlier. Over my first few years at Scouts, I felt the need to prove myself constantly to leaders and the boys alike but I enjoyed it so much – I went camping, I took part in air rifle shooting competitions and eventually became a Patrol Leader. 

When I moved group, it was to a much less male-dominated space and the other girls there have been incredible! I’m grateful to my original experience for the leadership and resilience it gave me through providing a chance to prove myself.

 My anxiety around feeling safe in my city collided with Scouting and my identities last year, when I walked in the Birmingham Pride parade with the organisation. The experience empowered me so much and I can’t wait to do it again this year. 

Volunteering, no matter the organisation, is a safe space for me – the work isn’t about me, it’s about the cause or the people I’m helping. I love feeling like a strong woman and helping as many people as I can, whether that be through being a Scout leader, helping at stay and plays or fundraising.

My advice to girls who feel vulnerable or lonely would be to find a community, because there’ll be one out there for you. Join a uniformed youth organisation, volunteer for a charity or food bank, become part of a campaign. 

Social action is life changing in so many ways. Organisations, charities and partners – please take on young girls and empower them, show them how incredible they are and how much they really can do.

Being a woman in Manchester, such an urban area, is somewhat difficult. Sometimes I wonder if people would think of me differently if I didn’t wear as much makeup as I do going to town, or if I dressed differently. Maybe I wouldn’t get street harassed so much …

To me, being a young girl seems like everything is a competition. You constantly have to look at your best, to work out vigorously to get the ‘perfect figure’. And even then you get judged – whether that’s how many compliments you receive on the streets, or how many likes you receive on a picture you posted on your social media. Whoever receives the most – wins! But what exactly? Self-worth? Confidence? 

Because to me, no matter how hard you try with your image, whether out in the streets or on social media, there will always be something or someone that has something you have always longed for. So you compete again. And the cycle continues.

So many aspects of our identity can act as barriers in life. I have three: working-class, ethnic minority and I am a woman. These barriers can make certain situations extremely challenging, especially if it involves image. Having afro hair as a woman is one of the factors that has made me feel insecure in the past. 

Certain individuals do not necessarily understand how afro hair is different from straight hair so will create a stigma around it. Some people may say afro hair is ‘unattractive’ or some people may compare afro hair to hair that is on other areas of your body. 

This negative stigma creates a sense of identity loss as girls of BAME communities straighten their hair or put their hair into box braids, as they feel ashamed of how their natural hair is.  This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy where natural hair is seen as even more unusual. This sort of barrier can destroy a woman’s confidence, making her feel worthless or ‘unwanted’ by society.

For me, having worked with great organisations such as Plan International UK, has given me a platform that not only empowers me as a woman, but makes me want to empower other young people to make them feel like they have a voice they thought they didn’t have.

Plan International UK is a charity that works around issues that predominately affect girls and women in the UK. From being on their Youth Advisory Panel, I have been able to receive opportunities to discuss issues such as street harassment to period poverty and stigma around menstruation. Having this sort of platform as a young women is incredible. 

As a girl, I believe that even after 100 years of women getting the right to vote, and despite the thousands of campaigns they’re have been to improve girls’ rights and gender equality, there is still a gender divide between boys and girls. In the society we’re growing up in, a hierarchy still remains, for boys to be one step ahead of girls.

We are still perceived as “the weaker sex”, yet it is women who have a 3 in 5 chance of being harassed in our streets. I know that women are not weaker – that we are inspiring and strong. We need to ensure that more women and girls can feel this way. Giving us opportunities for us to campaign on the issues affecting our lives, like I have done, is a powerful way to do this.