This international Women’s Day the theme is “choose to challenge,” because from challenge comes change and in this case greater opportunity for women in the future. 

BBBST’s Girls Empowerment! Program is working to challenge young women through education and support in order to help them develop the necessary skills to thrive later in life. The program features a gender-specific curriculum for girls and those who identify.  

According to Tanisha Henry, a BBBST Group-Based Programs Specialist who leads the Girls Empowerment! Program, the curriculum works to address specific issues that girls may face in order to influence participants to make better informed decisions about their lives.  

A research paper written by Iglesias and colleagues in 2002 indicated that girls deal with issues related to their physical and mental health, body image, gender, and self-esteem on a daily basis. A similar study in 2003 by Kaplan and Cole summarized that early adolescence is a turning point for girls when they begin to question their own individual identities and expand their ideas of gender expression. According to the study, these times can be confusing and restricting for many girls. Girls between the ages of nine and 13 are more likely to become less confident and indicate feelings of depression. Girls are twice as likely as boys to report feeling a need for mental health support in Ontario. 

Girls Empowerment! mentors (known as Bigs) support their mentees (known as Littles) in developing the necessary skills to reduce social isolation, have healthy relationships, use proper coping skills, and create a healthy lifestyle.  

Two trained Bigs work together to lead a one-hour session each week for their Littles via zoom (the program has moved to a virtual platform to adhere to COVID-19 restrictions). They work together to empower the group to break down barriers and build positive identities as a community of young girls. The Bigs work through the Search Institute’s developmental asset framework to help build strong developmental relationships with their Littles and guide them to develop the skills they need to thrive.  

Mentorship has been a proposed solution to many of the issues that young girls face daily. One study indicated that 60 per cent of Canadians who say they are “very confident” had a mentor in their youth. Another study indicated that mentoring groups like Girls Empowerment! allow young girls to establish relationships which can open possibilities for new expectations, empathy, tolerance, and mutual caring that may not have previously existed. Strong evidence was presented in a 2003 study that suggests there is a significant benefit for girls entering adolescence in taking part in more intimate, psychosocial relationships such as a relationship with a female mentor.  

According to Henry, you see positive changes quite quickly in some of the participants. She’s seen Littles who are very shy in the beginning of the program start to open up and participate more. They begin to engage more with the group, speak up and share their thoughts and feelings in an environment where they feel safe, encouraged, and supported.  

Participants have expressed feeling more confident as a female, learning how to be more body–positive, feeling safe and empowered, developing communication skills, developing confidence, and feeling joy in being part of a network of trust.  

While the program does have an immediate impact on the participants, the overall goal of the program is long-term. Through empowerment, education, support, and mentorship, BBBST aims to break cycles of depression, vulnerability, and risk-taking behaviours in young women.  

Young women are subjected to a variety of widely held beliefs and systems in Canada that negatively shape and influence their lives according to Henry. The influence of a positive adult role model is proven in research to counter negative influences despite a complex social system. The influence of a positive female Big will increase a female Little’s likelihood of long-term success, help them find their voice, form an identity, and build resiliency.  

The Girls Empowerment! Program supports approximately 200 young girls in Toronto each year, with specific recruitment strategies in place to engage certain neighborhoods in Toronto that have higher diversity and minority populations. The Girls Empowerment! Program is a life-changing mentorship opportunity and critical to ensuring a positive future for young women in the city of Toronto.