Winner 2014: Vesna Clark

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Analyse gender equality in your community. Should more be done to empower women?

Author: Vesna Clark

Community: Southern Highlands, NSW

Age: 16

The NSW Southern Highlands, known for its agriculture, wineries and coal mining, has 45,000 residents. Despite being only 120km from Sydney, the issue of gender inequality is prominent and the need to improve female empowerment within this rural community is crucial.

Being a female Year 11 student, I view sexist attitudes daily. These attitudes are often disseminated by male role models. My school, until very recently, had an all-male administration team, inadvertently giving a potent message to students. Living in a close-knit community, our major link without the outside world is the media, whose stereotypical representation of women becomes endemic. Males my age often disparage other males by calling them “girls.” I consistently view derogatory language projected at females including “slut”, “whore” and “bitch.” Although often used ironically, this practice subtly erodes girls’ confidence.

Employment opportunities in the Southern Highlands are limited, especially for females. Women are generally not seen in agricultural management or as tradespeople, partly because this is not encouraged. Within my school this is apparent when you observe the all-male senior Construction, Woodwork and Engineering classes.

An area that is particularly worrying is sport, and the way it dismisses women’s achievements. The school I attend is, in my opinion, primarily sport-focused (with rugby dominating). Sports news is about male achievements. The Southern Highlands newspaper publishes articles addressing boys’ sporting teams, but I have never seen a women’s team featured. Sportswomen are disempowered simply because their achievements are not recognised.

Attempting to break down these stereotypes that disempower women is a difficult task, as they have been formed over generations. The wider community needs to encourage young women to pursue whichever career path they desire. Being in a male-dominated workplace can be daunting, and support and encouragement are needed. Sports such as rugby and cricket need to grow to include women. If women’s teams are created in particular sports that are perceived to be boys’ sports, then it may eventually lead to mixed teams. Thus, eliminating gender discrimination and further empowering women.

I believe that education about issues such as safe sex, mental health, self-esteem and the poisonous effect of the media on body image is paramount if women are to have more control over their lives. An effective way we can educate women in rural communities is by establishing a Women’s Health Centre where doctors, counsellors, support groups and information are easily accessible. By creating a close and connected community for women, information is shared and confidence increases. Another strategy that can be implemented is mentorship to support and guide young women. In order to establish a mentor program, committed volunteers could be linked to a Women’s Health Centre, where a community of women are dedicated to helping other women in order to empower each other.

Through strategies that involve diminishing stereotypes, encouraging women and recognising that their capabilities and achievements are no different from men’s, we can achieve empowerment. If a whole rural community can improve gender equality this will spread throughout other communities and eventually diminish gender stereotypes that oppress and limit young women.