We are at a time when sexual harassment and violence are occurring at epidemic levels. One in four girls experiences sexual abuse or sexual assault by the age of 18, and seven out of 10 girls are sexually harassed at some point during their time in high school.

The trauma from these events is stored in the minds and the bodies of these young girls. The lasting effects of sexual harassment and violence can lead to poor physical and mental health and can impede girls’ ability to do well in school. But it goes beyond that.

These all-too-frequent experiences are wreaking havoc on overall feelings of safety in the body and can cause severe low self-esteem. Unless properly handled through various modes of therapy and group work, trauma will stay with these girls throughout their lives.

We need to get on the other side of the problem. This requires proactivity and consistent efforts in our homes, schools and the greater community.

Programs like Girls Inc. of the Seacoast Area, a program of the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center, are working with girls in our local schools to build self-confidence, teach media literacy, promote healthy relationships and more. The program’s mission is to inspire all girls to be “strong, smart and bold.”

Every May, Girls Inc. highlights an important issue impacting the lives of girls during Girls Inc. Week, (May 6-10). This year’s focus is on how each of us has a role to play in responding to and preventing sexual harassment.

Through the #GirlsToo: Respect Starts Young campaign, Girls Inc. is building a movement to end sexual harassment and violence by shifting the deeply entrenched norms that fuel these behaviors.

As part of Girls Inc. Week 2019, we are encouraging people everywhere to #BeUpstanding with the goal of empowering individuals to become part of the solution.

An upstander is someone who witnesses problematic language or behavior between people, either in person or online, and decides to do something about it. Research points to the fact that we are less likely to intervene in an urgent or emergency situation when others are present versus when we are alone.

We tend to assume that someone else will address the problem. But what if no one else does? For many upstanders, this is the question that drives them to act, and when they do, it gives others permission to do the same.

Many instances of harassment and violence occur in the presence of bystanders. Every situation is different, and your own personal safety must be considered when intervening.

However, there are many times where being an upstander can make a big difference. Perhaps, it’s asking the person who is upset if they need help and letting them know they don’t deserve to be treated that way.

If a person is exerting power or control over another person in some way, or pressuring someone to do something they may not be comfortable with, or is saying things about a person online or in person that are unwelcome or inappropriate, those may all be opportunities for an upstander to step up and help change the situation.

Girls Inc. of the Seacoast Area programming and The Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center connection:

At the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center, we knew that we needed to get ahead of the rampant domestic violence problem by offering youth empowerment and prevention programming. We began Girls Inc. of the Seacoast Area in 2010.

Currently, we are in five schools in Salisbury, Newbury, Newburyport, Amesbury and Ipswich. We reached 340 girls in fiscal 2018.

Here are some thoughts from girls in our programs:

“Because of Girls Inc. I learned that you are beautiful no matter what, and no matter what others tell you. You should never judge a person.”— Fifth-grade participant in the Media Literacy program

“The most important thing that I have learned during this program is that you can be who/what you want to be. You are capable of anything.” — Sixth-grade Girls Inc. of the Seacoast Area participant.

Girls Inc. of the Seacoast Area is also hosting two two-week summer programs for girls ages 7 to 9 and 10 to 12. The programs include kayaking at Plum Island Kayak, rock climbing at MetroRock, a scavenger hunt, trips to downtown Newburyport and parks, STEAM activities, yoga and self care, cooking, arts and crafts, and more.

Coupled with the importance of prevention programming for our youths, our culture as a whole needs to examine our attitudes and beliefs about gender and power, take seriously the experiences and concerns of young people, and speak up against sexual harassment and violence of any kind.

When this happens, we will be able to create a society where all girls grow up safe, respected and valued.

Let’s send a message to youths everywhere that we care. Start today by taking the #GirlsToo pledge at girlstoo.girlsinc.org.

Be sure to follow our Girls Inc. of the Seacoast Area Facebook page and Instagram for more Girls Inc. Week posts and to find out how you can take an active role in the solution.

Nicole Grace Frizzo is a development associate at the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center. For information about the center or Girls Inc. of the Seacoast Area programming, email her at nfrizzo@jeannegeiger.org.