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For Jessica Bentu, a fourth-year social work student at Ryerson, the Power to Girls Foundation created a space she didn’t have when she was in elementary school.
Power to Girls offers mentorship and leadership programs for young girls across the GTA and in
Ghana. Recently, the foundation held their annual Power of a Girl conference at the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) Catholic Education Centre. Girls from grades six to eight from five schools in the TCDSB were invited to join.
The conference provided a platform for girls to participate in conversations about mental wellness, self-love and body image, and hear from two keynote speakers about the challenges they face as racialized women.
Kim Snow, an associate professor in the school of child and youth care at Ryerson, says that many young girls suffer from low self-esteem during puberty.
“Their bodies [are] changing,” said Snow. “Society gives them various messages about what is the appropriate female body and what is not. And that can impact on young people’s sense of self.”
During elementary school, Bentu had extremely low self-esteem and experienced depression to the point where she would self-harm.
“Having a space where girls are able to learn about themselves and the different stressors they face and how to deal with them is powerful,” Bentu said. “They will feel like they’re not alone in whatever they’re going through.”
Bentu co-founded Power to Girls with her sister, Aisha Addo (who also founded the ride-sharing app, DriveHer). Growing up, Addo also lacked mentorship in her life. Because of this, she decided to create a platform and a space that allows girls to explore self-discovery.
What started out as a weekly group meeting in church has grown into a non-profit organization with a city-wide reach.
“Through those weekly discussions, I was able to heal through expressing myself and…find a sense of community,” Bentu said. “Then from there, [Addo] was like, ‘You know what? I want more girls to experience this.’ That’s how Power to Girls came to be.”
The foundation focuses on girls in elementary school because Addo says it’s the age where insecurities start to form.
“This is the age when girls start questioning and when they start doubting,” Addo said. “So, it was really important to create a space for them specifically, so that when they get to high school, they already have a solid foundation.”
Young girls have struggled with the media’s portrayal of them which impacts their self-esteem. Especially with the rise of social media, they are constantly being exposed to a specific standard of beauty.
“If you look at some of the magazines targeted to young people, it’s almost all about a stereotypical image of girlhood,” said Snow. “I think we need to provide other models that are valued in society of how young girls look and behave.”
However, Snow observes that there are a new generation of girls resisting social media’s ideals of them and using it as a platform to empower each other.
“What I actually see on social media is young girls taking back those kinds of images and challenging them,” said Snow. “I think the [March For Our Lives] protest in the U.S. this past weekend was a good example of young girls standing strong and proud of who they are.”