Girls hold the power to change the world, but they need our help now - Opinion, Special to the Sun Sentinel

March 25, 2021

It is no secret that throughout history, women have faced overwhelming barriers to make their voices heard. These barriers remain today, and the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these obstacles by disproportionately impacting women both economically and emotionally.

Girls and young women also experience these systemic barriers. Societal conditioning can lower girls’ confidence and self-worth, causing those most young and impressionable to face higher rates of depression, sexual abuse, bias, exploitation and violence, conditions that may lead to a lack of equitable opportunities for girls. This lack of opportunity creates dire effects on women that come in the form of a widened wage gap or reinforcement of stereotypes, often leading to generational impacts.

It is imperative that women and our allies take action now to remove these barriers and create a more just and equitable society for the next generation of women.

As executive director at Pace Center for Girls, Broward, I work toward this vision every day. At Pace, we envision a world where all girls and young women have power, in a just and equitable society. Last year, we worked with over 140 middle- and high-school-aged girls from across Broward County, many of whom have felt the effects of gender disparities and work each day to heal from their associated traumas. To offer one example, amidst the height of the pandemic, the U.S. saw increased rates of gender-based violence, where stay-at-home orders exacerbated girls’ vulnerability to sexual assault and domestic violence. Here in Broward County, a significant number of girls live in households that are considered poor; children who live in poverty tend to underperform academically compared to their counterparts and are at increased risk of experiencing traumatic events that can negatively affect their lives long-term.

Over the last 28 years, Pace Center for Girls has transformed the lives of over 8,500 girls across Broward County. Our purpose has been to help girls heal from traumas and develop life skills; our statewide program has helped over 40,000 girls graduate high school, move on to secondary education or find careers. These girls are often our most vulnerable girls in their community who find themselves in negative circumstances outside of their control, such as parental divorce, incarceration of a parent or family member, severe depression, substance abuse or traumas brought on by violence or forms of abuse. Girls that come to Pace are facing systemic issues that hinder progress toward complete gender equity.

In my role at Pace, I am steadfastly focused on addressing the glaring disparities that exist and helping girls gain the life skills and confidence to become successful individuals and overcome existing barriers. To shape more equitable communities, we must help all girls find their voices and recognize their power so we can chip away at these harmful long-standing gaps that hold girls and women hostage. At Pace, we do this by helping girls find pathways to success through gender-responsive programming that combines academics, mental health counseling and social services in an environment designed specifically for girls and their personal growth and development. Girls face unique struggles, but the goal remains: to create a just and equitable society, regardless of race, religion, socioeconomic background, or sexual orientation.

Investing in girls helps girls to invest in themselves and they need to know that they have supportive, caring, and committed adults who will help them every step of their journey. As Women’s History Month comes to a close, we must remember that today’s girls and young women are our next generation of community leaders, business owners and entrepreneurs, educators, medical professionals, mothers and beyond. Many of us had the privilege to stand on the shoulders of strong, impactful role models and mentors in our lives — it is our duty and responsibility to provide the same for the next generation of girls. By inspiring and empowering our girls to use their voices and remain resilient, they can achieve a brighter future. We must not only tell our girls they can be whoever they want to be and to believe in their own capabilities, but we must instill in them the desire to enact change for a better world for all girls and women.