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Reports
 

 

Voices from the Maine Youth Center

Who We Are and Who We Are Becoming

Adolescent Girls' Health Issues

Cultivating Hardiness Zones for Adolescent Girls

Girls' Health: An Action Plan for Maine

 

 

Mainely Girls' Special Report
MAINE GIRLS:
WHO WE ARE
AND WHO WE'RE BECOMING

Data and Findings from the 1998/1999 Survey of Girls

For further information contact:

Mainely Girls
69 Elm Street
Camden, ME 04843
207-230-0170
megirls@midcoast.com

Copyright 2000 by Mainely Girls. Permission to copy, disseminate, or otherwise use information from this survey report is granted as long as appropriate acknowledgment is given. To obtain additional copies of this publication, please contact Mainely Girls.


EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
(Click here for Full Report)

459 girls completed the 95 question survey during the 1998-1999 school year: 290 7th graders and 169 11th graders. 111 were from northern Maine, 348 from southern Maine, 160 from urban areas and 299 from rural areas. Most girls were approached in schools but many were reached at conferences, youth projects, or through personal contact. The distribution and selection was not done in a scientific fashion, and this report is not meant to be a representation of the experience of all Maine girls. However, by listening to what the girls who took the survey had to say, insight into what life is like for some Maine girls can be gained.

From the survey findings we have identified six key areas of concern for Maine girls.

Girls are making choices about sex sooner than adults are often aware of and before girls understand their own sexuality. Depression and stress is going undetected in girls, and their involvement in high-risk behaviors is on the rise as they move out of junior high and into high school. Many girls responding to the survey are not safe in home, or in school, and the results of that will certainly play out in their lives. So many girls do not see what is happening at school as important or relevant to their futures.

SEX

The findings:

Girls are becoming sexually active by middle school, and they need support to understand their sexuality and make wise choices. 101 girls, 22% of the survey total had been sexually active. 85 (50%) girls of the 169 high school girls surveyed, and 16 (4%) of the 290 junior high girls had had sex. 47% of the 101 girls had their first sexual encounter before they finished 9th grade. In eight cases, the girl's first partner was five to thirteen years older than the girl. 59% of the 101 sexually active girls in the survey wished they had waited to become sexually active, with many of them citing alcohol, or pressure from boys, their peers or themselves as reasons for choosing to become sexually active. Several girls indicated they were in committed and loving relationships and felt good about their choice to be sexually active. We also observed an interesting distinction. When girls talk of birth control, they mean oral contraceptives; practicing safe sex to girls means using of condoms.

Recommendations:

Improve and expand ways to teach girls not only about sex, but also the rights and responsibilities inherent in and the pleasures and the problems associated with their own female sexuality. When faced with making choices about if, when, with whom and why to become sexually active, girls need to have multiple kinds of support readily available to them: guidance from understanding adults, factual information, and direct services.

DEPRESSION

The findings:

Overall, 17% of the survey respondents indicated they suffer from depression, 13% in junior high and 24% in high school. A consistent 10% of the total sample was found to be chronically depressed, with initial findings indicating a higher incidence for girls living in northern and/or rural locations.

Recommendations:

Further study is needed on depression in northern, southern, urban and rural girls and what help is available to them in those specific locations. Greater awareness and education needs to be done to spot depression in girls. Girls' depression needs to be taken seriously and efforts made to address their illness, which often leads to a host of other problems.

STRESS AND SUICIDE

The findings:

34% of the girls surveyed say they always or almost always feel stressed, the distressingly high 27% of junior high girls increasing to an amazing 42% of high school girls. Once the girls get to high school, we know that the complexity of homework, increased responsibilities at home, and part-time jobs all factor into the stress. Increased peer pressures and high-risk behaviors such as smoking, drinking, and drugs (addressed below), are also a part of the mounting stress in girls' lives as they move from junior high to high school. Girls tend to hold stress in, and they can become angry and depressed, as Lyn Mikel Brown, Ph.D., notes in Raising Their Voices: The Politics of Girls and Anger. We need to be aware of suicidal signals and have action plans ready. 28% of the girls surveyed consider the idea of suicide occasionally to frequently. These are "active" suicide thoughts, versus "passive" attempts via eating disorders, carelessness, and other forms of risk-taking.

Recommendations:

Girls need assistance in recognizing, reducing and managing stress. Training is needed to recognize the signs of stress in girls before their condition becomes exacerbated and takes new forms.

HIGH RISK BEHAVIORS:
SMOKING, DRINKING, DRUGS

The findings:

Prevention education works best with junior high and middle school students, and we need to focus heavily on the younger children in those schools to prevent them from becoming involved with high risk behaviors. As the data shows, by high school many students are already smoking, drinking and using drugs. At the high school level, intervention is necessary to help them stop and education approaches shift to reinforce positive choices.

In all of these high-risk behaviors, the numbers dramatically increase between the junior high and high school girls.

Behavior Junior High High School Total
Smoking 12% 30% 18%
Drinking 10% 39% 21%
Drugs 6% 22% 12%

Recommendation:

Prevention and intervention strategies need to specifically address girls at both the junior high and high school levels. It's not enough to bring in the Marlborough Man and assume he reaches everyone.

VIOLENCE AND ABUSE

The findings:

Violence and abuse touch the lives of many Maine girls, whether they are victims or witnesses, in home and/or at school—the two places where they should feel most safe. Often action is only taken when the abuse is deemed life threatening or results in physical evidence—provided the girl is willing to let the evidence be seen. Equally dangerous are years of verbal abuse and criticism. People living in the girls' homes had perpetrated over half of the incidences of sexual, verbal, and physical abuse according to our survey.

19% of junior high girls and 35% of high school girls self-identified as victims of abuse and violence.

  • 71 girls, 15% of the survey sample indicated that domestic violence is or had been a problem in their homes, 92% (65 girls) said they knew how to get help, and 8% (6 girls) who did not know how to get help.
  • 112 girls, 25% of the survey sample indicated that they had been subject to physical abuse, 57% (64 girls) saying the abuser was someone living in her home.
  • 70 girls, 15% of the survey sample said they had been sexually abused, 61% (43 girls) saying the perpetrators lived in their homes.
  • 235 girls, 51% of the survey sample said they had been verbally abused, 65% (152 girls) said the source was someone living in her home, 35% saying the abuser was not someone from home.

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Recommendations:

Girls need to learn about safe places, healthy relationships, and ways to break the cycle of family abuse. Work needs to be done in all-girl as well as co-educational settings to explore and support healthy relationships. Schools can partner with Maine's domestic violence school-based advocacy programs to educate girls as well as boys about healthy and unhealthy relationships.

SCHOOL

The findings:

The safety of girls in school as well as their attitudes about school are of concern, and are discussed separately below.

  • Safe to be yourself: About 40% of girls said they had to be "nice" or "outgoing" or had to conform to a stereotype to be accepted by the kids in their schools. 29% of the girls said they didn't feel safe to be themselves all the time in school.
  • Physically safe: 25% of the girls responding did not feel safe in school at least some of the time. 38% said they had been sexually harassed, and only one third of those cases had been successfully resolved.
  • Attitudes: 17% of girls --14% of junior high girls and 20% of high school girls--have considered dropping out of school. The main reasons cited for this were hating it, not learning anything, stress/difficulty of work, and boredom. Overall, math and science classes were their least favorite classes; girls felt either they were not good in the subject, or that the classes were boring or irrelevant.

The level of safety, emotionally as well as physically, and the attitudes of girls about school, particularly with math, and science, are not new concerns. They are old problems that have not gone away and still need to be addressed. We have to ask if what we are providing for girls in our schools, in their school climate as well as academically and pedagogically is enough? In light of their negative responses about curriculum, harassment, safety, and school's relevance in their lives, it may be surprising that only 17% of girls have considered dropping out. While many girls say they consider themselves to be unique, strong individuals, we wonder what it is about a school environment that doesn't allow girls to be who they are in school. And we wonder what the ultimate cost to girls.

In regards to single-sex education, 38% of the girls indicated interest in all-girl classes and workshops in areas such as computers, math, science, and the arts. While single sex education is under great scrutiny, and is at times quite controversial, girls expressed high interest in single-sex opportunities.

Recommendations:

Schools need to recognize and encourage individuality, diversity and differences. Additionally, girls need more single-sex learning opportunities.

Girls' final comments after completing the survey.

When drawing observations from the survey data, it is most helpful to listen to what the girls had to say when they were done with the questions. While some girls found the questioning difficult or too personal, many of the girls indicated that taking the survey helped them gain some perspective on their lives:

“Thank you for paying attention to our rights and feelings about some very sensitive issues, and helping us get in touch with ourselves as girls/women.”

“I think this was a really good idea. It made me really think about where I stand in my life, and things I can do about it. And what else is going on outside my life that may not affect me, such as gangs and drugs. Even though they are around me, it's not a part of my life directly. But it makes me more aware. I can't imagine living in an environment where I was afraid to go to school and go out at night. It makes me very thankful for the community in which I live.”

“You did a wonderful job. You weren't as boring as the other survey people asking the same question every time. Finally. Keep doing what you're doing helping girls in MAINE!”

“I don't really understand this focus on empowering girls. I know it needs to be done and maybe I'm spoiled but I thought the chicks were doing fine. Teen pregnancy is way down—that must mean something. Maybe what I'm saying is that when I'm president I won't focus so much on how to make girls feel better about themselves but rather on how we can prevent girls from feeling bad about themselves in the first place.”

“[The] survey made me think about what I need to do to accomplish my goals for the future. Makes me a bit nervous—but [I] needed a little reality check. Makes me feel sad about those women/girls who have had major problems in their lives. I look over it and realize that I am really lucky, and that my life is pretty great. I need to slow down, not allow myself to be stressed. This survey definitely made me stop and look at my life. A great time out.”

NOT A CONCLUSION BUT RATHER A BEGINNING...

Is all that the Mainely Girls survey found bad news? No. There is quite a bit of hope.

Girls see themselves as smart, they have great ambitions--travel, college, careers, families-- for their futures, and they are mostly happy. Judging from the interest girls indicated in mentoring opportunities, leadership, economic empowerment, ways to get the most out of high school, and how to finance post-high school education, what may be helpful for girls is assistance with envisioning the possibilities of their futures, and help recognizing that the choices they make today are shaping their future. The fact that 92% of girls have at least one adult in their lives supporting their hopes and dreams is also good news. Often this adult was a woman--mother, aunt, grandmother, or older sister--and it is likely that this one woman will make a difference. But these six areas--sex, depression, stress, high-risk behaviors, abuse and violence, and school--are of major concern and require direct and immediate action by all adults who interact with girls.

"But she was looking out, looking for someone to see her."
          -- Susanna Kaysen, Girl Interrupted

This quote by Susanna Kaysen tells of a young woman looking at a girl in a painting and interpreting what the girl in the painting was doing. As readers of the survey, we are the young woman looking at Maine girls, listening to the girls' voices as heard through the survey, hearing their words, interpreting what they are saying about themselves, their lives, their world. The girls are speaking out, hoping that we will hear them. We all need to listen carefully to understand where the young women in their lives are right now, and what can be done to support them in their journey toward womanhood.

About Mainely Girls

Mainely Girls, a non-profit organization, was developed from a personal research project on girls' development issues begun by Mary Orear in 1992. After five years of pursuing this interest while teaching at the middle and high school levels, Ms. Orear formed Mainely Girls in the summer of 1996 as a full-time effort to galvanize communities to identify and address girls' unmet needs. In addition to working with and for girls in local communities, Mainely Girls assumes a public eduction role on behalf of girls in schools, legislative bodies, and businesses.