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6 April 2009 - Lack of real-life experience puts girls at risk

New Girlguiding research calls for better information on the risks girls face and the skills they need to stay safe.

Girls today are not given the experience and information they need to assess risk and make good decisions about their safety, according to new Girlguiding research.

Redefining risk: Girls shout out! is based on polling among almost 1,000 members of Girlguiding aged between 10 and 18 and a series of in-depth focus groups. Key findings of the report include:

  • Half of girls believe they are not given enough freedom to do things on their own
  • Two-thirds of those over 13 feel that there are still more rules for girls than for boys
  • A fifth over 16 have been in a car when the driver has been drinking
  • One-in-five has considered meeting someone they encountered online, even though equal numbers have experienced someone lying about their identity
  • Three-quarters believe that learning from past experiences helps you to deal with risk.

Research indicates that the reporting of serious but rare threats, coupled with the concerns of worried adults, can actually distort the focus away from the more common daily risks facing young women today. Trends identified in this new report are making girls more vulnerable and ill equipped to deal with the challenging real-life situations that they encounter every day. Indeed, some actions to protect girls are actually putting them in more danger.

Half of girls aged 10 to 18 believe that they are not given enough independence to do things on their own (47 per cent.) Two-thirds of girls over 13 feel that there are still more rules for girls than for boys (65 per cent.) 

Girls feel that peers with more protective or nervous adults in their lives find it much harder to assess threats or handle different situations. Girls who described their own parents as very protective tend to agree that they are more cautious than their friends. Half of those questioned believe that their own parents worry too much about their safety (52 per cent).

Media headlines and the reactions of anxious parents cause girls to be preoccupied with traditional 'stranger danger'. 40 per cent of girls acknowledge that 'what I see or read on TV, in the newspaper and on the internet makes me worry about my safety'. This focus on very serious, but infrequent, crime has led girls to be given inadequate advice, often causing them to misidentify risks, prepare inadequately and unwittingly expose themselves to more common threats. 42 per cent admit they sometimes find themselves in situations they don't know how to handle.

Research indicates that fears about letting girls go out by themselves means they spend more time on the internet which can be an even riskier environment, often not understood by adults, where there are even fewer rules to keep them safe. While girls describe a risk-averse culture in the 'real world', they are exposed to significant threats in the virtual world.

Almost half of all the girls questioned have seen things online that have made them upset or frightened (46 per cent). Over a quarter have been bullied over the internet (29 per cent). Older girls are concerned that younger girls are now so familiar with the internet they have become too trusting of it, particularly because there is insufficient guidance information available about to protect themselves. A fifth of all girls have considered meeting someone they met online in real life (19 per cent), even though similar numbers have come across someone online who turned out not to be who they said they were (20 per cent).

Almost all girls questioned believe that carrying a mobile phone makes them safer (95 per cent), unaware of the risks of being distracted or displaying valuables. 85 per cent of 16- to 18-year-olds speak on a mobile phone and 79 per cent listen to an iPod while walking alone at night. Two-fifths also take shortcuts through parks or alleyways after dark. Meanwhile, a fifth of girls of this age have been in a car when the person driving has been drinking, while a quarter has been unable to get home after a night out.

Rather than impose more rules, girls say that better information, more up-to-date guidance, and more life experience gives them the best chance of staying safe. Three-quarters believe that learning from past experiences helps you to deal with risk (75 per cent), while two-thirds believe that challenging themselves in situations where there are people around to look out for them makes them safer in the real world (64 per cent).

Girls also argue that knowledge is much more likely to help them make responsible choices than to lead them into risky behaviour. In focus groups girls also argued that drinking responsibly at home, under their parents' supervision, helps them to behave more safely when they were out with their friends. 

Chief Guide Liz Burnley said: 'All of us who care about young women have a responsibility to keep them safe. But we also have a responsibility to equip them for the world they live in today. As the UK's largest organisation providing a safe space for girls and young women, we know that educating girls responsibly about difficult issues – from eating disorders to sex and relationships – will give them the knowledge to make good decisions for themselves. We know the freedom to try new things – from learning survival skills to the rules of street safety – will help them stay safe day-to-day.

'From our experience we know that doing things that they might find frightening – from travelling to the other side of the world or flying down a zip wire – will give them the confidence to broaden their horizons and reach for new goals.'

A panel of young women from across the UK have developed a call to action based on the research. Key points include:

  • Girls to be given more experience and better information – in safe environments
  • New guidance on online safety to be developed specifically for girls
  • An end to gender-bias in public information campaigns which enforce the idea that girls need to be looked after by boys
  • The introduction of a new young person's taxi scheme with youth cab ranks
  • Best-practice schemes like free rape alarms and flip-flops for walking home to be made available nationwide

Ann Elledge, Director of Personal Safety at the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, said: 'As girls grow up and become independent they need to learn how to stay safe. It is necessary for them to take acceptable risks once they are equipped with the appropriate information and skills to assess and deal with such risks. They should then be able to develop their own personal safety strategies.

'Girlguiding have produced an excellent report which includes a wealth of valuable information about the concerns girls feel about their safety and the skills they feel they need in order to stay safe. As a society, we need to listen to what they say and respond accordingly.'

Jim Gamble, Chief Executive of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) Centre, said: 'The Girlguiding Redefining Risk report provides a contemporary picture of the experiences of children and young people online and reflects what our Thinkuknow Education Team hear from children and young people every day: that parents and carers often don't know what they do and where they go online, or the risks that children may face in online environments.'

Redefining risk: Girls shout out! is the fifth report in Girlguiding's new Girls shout out! research series. Copies of the report can be downloaded from: www.girlguiding.org.uk/girlsshoutout.

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Guiding has had a positive impact on girls' lives for the past 100 years.