“Stop talking about squirrels, I’ll pick you up and grab you by the tail and then set me on fire.” Girl Up, a network of teenage girls fighting sexual assault in schools

HotNews.ro spoke with the leaders of Girl Up, a network of more than a hundred high school students from 21 local regions in Romania, which aims to combat sexual abuse in schools, for the right to “realistic” sex education and gender equality.

girl protestPhoto: personal archive

Misogyny and abuse of women are still prevalent in Romania, as evidenced by recent cases that have attracted public attention.

In this context there are some initiatives on the part of the new generation to be aware of these problems and solve them. This is how Girl Up Romania appeared, a network of more than 100 secondary students, from 21 localities, who fight for the rights of girls and women, but also for real gender equality, among adolescents and not only.

I spoke with Katie Olario, vice president of the organization, and Irina Ishim, president of Girl Up, to learn more about their approach.

What does Girl Up Romania mean and how can you be a part of it

Girl Up debuted in America in 2010 as an initiative of the United Nations Foundation. Over time, the NGO became present in many countries around the world, “along with the growth of the feminist movement,” the two young women explain.

In Romania, the association was established by Sofia Scarlat (currently a student at Stanford University), in 2018, when she was only 15 years old. At the time, inspired by actress Emma Watson’s speech on gender equality at the United Nations, she wrote to the organization hoping to start a local chapter, and two months later her application was approved.

Nowadays, the community has grown a lot in the online environment and has become a platform where teens can find support for their problems, as well as a base for current topics related to them.

“Girl Up Romania is an organization that encourages people to be informed and open to the feminist movement and especially to a better understanding of it. We consider it important to use social networks, and not just to highlight the problems facing girls and women in Romania.

Our goal is that little by little, through actions, protests and campaigns, we make a change, either from a legislative point of view or from the perspective of society in this country,” say Katie and Irina.

Furthermore, young women like to stress that the term “feminism” is often misunderstood at the community level and that many people are “afraid” of it “because it has become an insult in Romanian culture.”

However, they add, “For us, being a feminist means the drive to continue the struggle for equal opportunity in all its forms.”

Girl Up representatives stated that their organization also includes male members because they strongly believe that “all individuals in society (regardless of gender) should strive for equal opportunity.”

The association operates on the basis of a team of members (all based in Bucharest), but also a network of ambassadors (outside the capital), which extends to almost every province in Romania.

The girls also say that those who want to be part of this movement need to know that the subscription period is usually July and August, and then they have to fill out a form that helps them find out whether or not they have things in common with their activity, and finally participate in an interview.

“As much as I thought the situation in Romania was about sexual assault, it’s much worse”

Katie Olario and Irina Ishim also spoke about the current problems of adolescents in Romania, such as the countless cases of sexual abuse in schools, as well as the lack of accessible, realistic sex education,” as discussions about consent, the prevalence and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy were inconclusive. Desirable and safe abortion is not a taboo or a topic to be ridiculed.”

The association engaged in discussions with Parliamentarian Semena Tolbur, during which she had the opportunity to express exactly what she wanted from a school program that would include sex education, how it would work and how it would be implemented.

Regarding the violations, in June they launched a campaign of publications on their Facebook page with the testimonies received by the victims, which culminated in a protest they organized on 8 June in front of the School Inspectorate in Bucharest Municipality.

Here is one of the testimonials sent to Facebook:

“I am at a famous medical school in Romania, where an academic often made sexually suggestive comments to his patients or even to my colleagues, such as: ‘Don’t talk to squirrels, I’ll take you tail too and then get excited’.

(…) When I asked what could be done about this academic setting, I was told that there was nothing but a teacher feedback questionnaire (as there is no option to add comments or feedback. Note: Worse, the man in question is a gynecologist.”

“What I have noticed as a result of this approach is that although I think the situation in Romania is about sexual abuse, it is much worse. We still receive testimonies from teens and young adults telling them about their experiences from high school, middle school and even public school.”

At the June 8 protest, the Girl Up member was welcomed into the Inspectorate, where they arranged to join them and several other student organizations, such as the Student National Council, to discuss methodological solutions.

“The reaction of the Inspectorate to our protest shows that they want to solve the problem so that we do not disturb their peace anymore. It is true that they finally accepted an open dialogue with us, but we had to protest on a small sidewalk because the gates of the ISMB Square were closed and the gendarmes did not want to close our street for work,” Girls added. .

On June 29, Girl Up Romania representatives met with Foreign Minister Antoaneta Bolchilș, of the Ministry of Education, where they put forward some solutions such as:

  • Develop a guide on school abuse and dealing with sexual harassment for distribution to teachers and students
  • The beginning of the steps to change the structure of disciplinary committees in schools
  • Increase penalties for abusive teachers

‘No stopping’

Katie and Irina consider a teen safe place to be extremely important and assure that Girl Up is one, both for its members and for those who come to seek their help.

They believe that the new generation has the opportunity to change the patterns of society, because it grew up with the Internet and is more open to new information and viewpoints, because it has always been in contact with different opinions on different topics.

“Feminism itself is no longer something accepted and promoted by one or two people, and now many girls in urban areas consider themselves feminists. This proves that progress is not impossible, even in a conservative country like Romania. We are determined to grow our movement and constantly evolve,” as they cross.

Girl Up representatives believe that a transformation of society could be possible if the ideas and changes they were proposing were harnessed, rather than those originated by “some people who have not gone through experiences such as street harassment, domestic violence, sexual assault, revenge porn, sexism of Family or close people. The fighting continues as long as people don’t want to take us seriously and there is no stopping it.”

What is inner misogyny and how can we get rid of it

As Girl Up representatives claim, in society in general, but particularly in Romania, teenage girls are hypersexual from a young age, and then, “if they express themselves in the way the world around them guides them, they are classified as ‘prostitutes'”. ”

They generally suffer a lot from inner misogyny and express it through prejudice against others who are different from them,” they add.

Katie and Irina explain that this basically means “the misogyny builds up around you as a woman until it takes root in your subconscious and you can’t get away from the sexual thoughts that come with it. Every girl/woman deals with this to some extent and it stays with many because it is often difficult Realizing it exists. You have to completely change the way you thought when you were a kid.”

However, the two are careful to point out that such a large and diverse group cannot be generalized in a few lines, as that would be superficial on their part, which they do not want.

They realize that every girl has her own life experiences, like every other human being, and it is essential, they say, “to remember that we are human too, not just objects to be sexually exploited or children to be ridiculed.”

In all this context, young women complement, information is essential. “We need to be aware of such concepts, how they manifest themselves, and why they appear. Especially in this day and age when we have so many studies that we can rely on to prove these kinds of concepts.”

Girl Up will continue to use her voice, even if it is “often belittled or not taken seriously at all.” They have confidence in change, especially when they see examples of other youth activists around the world. They concluded: “We need major systemic changes, not to take steps back, but only forward.”

Note: Anywhere, anytime, any book

In 2019, Girl Up published the book Anywhere, Anytime, Anyone, in which she collected many of the testimonies of sexual harassment and assault she has received from her social media followers over the years.

The post is a physical copy of the Instagram account of the same name, the main purpose of which is to “emphasise that sexual harassment and sexual assault are manifestations of discrimination and misogyny and not ‘individuals’ cases influenced by other factors.”

When I launched the book, I wanted this message to reach as many people as possible.”

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