Now in its 21st year, Comox Valley Girls Group provides a safe space for the development of female empowerment.
Famed feminist leader Gloria Steinem is quoted as saying: “Revolutions that last don’t happen from the top down. They happen from the ground up.” While tipping points in society make change seem rapid, it actually comes through a slow and steady build-up done by people close to the ground putting in the effort, every day, no matter who is watching.
Comox Valley Girls Group (CVGG) was established in 1999 by Wendy Morin—a youth and family substance use counsellor who currently serves as a Courtenay city councillor—and registered clinical counsellor Paula Purcell in response to the societal issues that challenge young women. Their intention was to create a safe, non-judgemental, and confidential space to relate to peers and explore concepts like healthy relationships, sexuality, mental health, and self-esteem. There is no pressure to conform to any set stereotype, and the group is inclusive of a variety of gender identities.
CVGG moved under the umbrella of the Comox Valley Transition Society in 2006, and Morin currently acts as coordinator. She is a passionate advocate for the group, as well as for the broader scope of female empowerment. She cites an increase in violence involving young women, as well as the book Reviving Ophelia, written by therapist Mary Pipher, as early influences. “The book mentions that at first, girls often feel very capable and confident,” she says. “They may feel that they can keep up to boys, physically. They feel like they can do anything. And then, around puberty, their self-esteem can plummet. There are a lot of societal influences and a pattern in the way girls are socialized that contribute to this.”
CVGG aims to provide a counterbalance to the negative experiences that women face at this age. For example, to combat societal messaging that puts an influence on appearance over achievement, they explore who gets acknowledged and rewarded in western society, and why. Morin describes a game where names of successful women are placed on each girl’s back before she tries to guess that name based on clues she is given. Often, celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Beyoncé are quickly named, but women who have made game-changing contributions to society, like Marie Curie and Susan B. Anthony, are not as easily identified.
The groups themselves are co-led by trained peer facilitators between the ages of 16 and 19, many of whom are former participants. This peer dynamic strives to repair the isolation that young women experience because of judgement and bullying, and share tools to cope in the future, like communication and assertiveness skills. Discussions also shed light on the factors that lead to violence against women. Morin is careful to say that CVGG is not intended as therapy, though, when needed, they refer girls to the appropriate professionals for additional support. And on occasion, girls are directed toward the group by local professionals, as CVGG has a positive reputation within the community.
The group is flexible by design, adapting to topical issues that have arisen over its two-plus decades of existence, such as the rise of the #MeToo movement. To help engage the girls and spark creativity as a form of self-expression, activities include projects like art journaling, zine making, and photography. A grant from the Queen Alexandra Foundation allowed CVGG to develop peer facilitation training. It is available to 16- to 19-year-olds who are interested in leading other girls and gaining volunteer work experience that includes over 20 hours of training in session planning, group dynamics, helping ethics, and much more.
A recent grant from the Canadian Women’s Foundation has allowed the group to add a 10- and 11-year-old program to its 12- and 13-year-old, 14- to 16-year-old, and 17- to 21-year-old sessions. As well, the grant has enabled CVGG to bring together strong women in the fields of business, non-traditional careers, and politics to dialogue with group participants about breaking down barriers and getting more gender equity in leadership and decision-making positions.
Rachael (whose last name has been withheld) initially attended CVGG at age 12 and has gone on to be one of the group’s most consistent peer facilitators and volunteers. “We all go through a journey or self-exploration and self-expression,” she says. “When you first come into group everyone is kind of shy and standoffish. By the end of it, everyone is friends, and is comfortable sharing how they are actually feeling… it’s the beauty of transformation and growth that happens when you are in a room with people that you actually feel comfortable with.”
For more information about Comox Valley Girls Group or Peer Facilitation Training, including sessions adapted to meet COVID-19 safety protocols, please visit cvgirlsgroup.ca
Profile of community in action sponsored by North Island Urology