Gaining strength against abuse
By Cari Hachmann/The Portland Observer
Bullying, domestic abuse, sexual assault, and violence in schools and at home reflect age-old societal norms in need of reversal.
According to U.S. statistics, one in three women will experience domestic violence in their lives. One in three teens knows a peer that has been abused by their partner. Nearly 50 percent of college women report having experienced violent or abusive dating behaviors.
At age 12, girls are also vulnerable to gangs and more likely to be lured into sex-trafficking, and because girls are more likely to be sexually abused by someone they know, their voices are often silenced.
Thirty-years-ago, police began offering free anti-rape classes called WomenStrength for ladies to learn self-defense. Now, its little sister program, GirlStrength, which began in 2008, reaches out to a younger generation of women. If its success rate ripples, the days of silence for women suffering abuse may be over.
In GirlStrength, girls aged 10 to 14 in elementary and middle schools are learning to fight back, both physically and emotionally. Northeast Portland’s Faubion Elementary school became one of the first Portland Public School to implement the volunteer-run nine-week course.
With a blackbelt in martial arts and a theater education, GirlStrength Coordinator Carolyne Haycraft is not backing down on the program’s mission to foster awareness, demystify fear, and empower girls to be strong and confident.
“We don’t want them to be afraid,” Haycraft said.
Seventh grade girls at Faubion’s pre K-8 school ally with instructor Lisa Ernst throughout the week. She teaches them that in dangerous scenarios, “being nice” is not their only option.
Girls learn to use their voice through self-esteem and relationship-building skills. They practice how to respond to bullying, physical attacks, and dating issues with role-play scenarios. Striking, kicking, and screaming are among the physical skills girls learn that may save them in a surprise attack situation.
For many, hearing their own scream for the first time is alarming for those who begin the class timid and shy, but as the weeks progress, the girls get louder, more serious, and empowered.
“Around week four, the girls start to open up to you and each other,” said Ernst, a hairdresser by trade who completed 130 hours of intensive training to teach GirlStrength.
As a safe space just for girls, students learn to ally and form new relationships with each other, instead of letting cliques isolate them. Sidney Bir, an 8th grader who took GirlStrength last year, said she learned how to protect herself and the people around her.
“If someone was being bullied, I’d go stand next to them, and it might make the bully feel intimidated,” said Bir.
The class also aims to expose girls to realities of the outside world, like pimps and Johns and the decoys of prostitution. The instruction is geared to help kids steer themselves away from abusive relationships, choose healthier partners, and form more open and safe relationships as adults.
Eighth grader Arabella Zook frequently walks by herself to and from school, but says she feels safer after having learned self-defense.
“You can use your intuition if something feels wrong,” she said.
Myeesha Morris chimes in with some of the options she learned about safety.
If you’re outside walking by yourself–your instincts pop in,” she said, “You can defend, call 911, or run to the closest house.”
Courtney Ford said that she not only learned how to defend herself, but gained confidence and self-esteem.
“Don’t let boys get you all messed up,” she warns.
Meeting up with her instructor and female classmates helped Ford through her 7th grade year when a lot of bullying was going around.
“It helped me then, and it will help me in high school and the rest of my life,” she said.
“[GirlStrength] encourages yourself to be a better person,” said Chinwendu Ughamba. “And learn for yourself how to higher your self-esteem.”
Not everybody has it so good at home says one of the girls, so it is important for them to be able to talk to people at school and use the resources available to them there.
Faubion counselor Kristina Lasher said last year a female student survived an attack by someone she knew. She used her GirlStrength skills to yell and fight back and broke the code of silence.
“It’s important to talk after the event,” said Lasher.
Healing is another subject on the class curriculum.
When asked if they would recommend GirlStrength to other girls, Morris, Ford, and Chinwendu shout Yes!” in unison.
Carolyne Haycraft gages the success of the program by how many girls are lining up to talk about their experience a year after the fact with willingness and enthusiasm.
She hopes resources may permit a similar class for boys.