Though Greater Boston is one of the safest metro areas in the United States, sexual and gender-based violence is a serious community issue that needs to be addressed. According to the 2015 Report on the Status of Women and Girls in Boston, young girls are the most vulnerable to violence and exploitation including domestic violence (70% of victims), sexual assault (90% of victims), and commercial sexual exploitation (98% of victims). At the same time, there are not enough violence prevention resources available to girls and women in Boston and surrounding communities. This need is recognized by local leaders (See: The Safety Net, December 2019; City of Boston Violence Prevention Plan, 2017; City of Cambridge Community Needs Assessment, 2017; The Wellbeing of Somerville Report, 2017)
Girls in Boston are disproportionately the target of violence, including domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking. According to a recent public health study from MGH (2019), 25% of survey respondents described their Boston neighborhood as "unsafe" or "extremely unsafe". Respondents within our primary service area were twice as likely to report feeling unsafe. Violence commonly results in trauma symptoms that disrupt a girl's education and reduce her chance of a healthy, fulfilling life.
Girls do not receive adequate information about violence prevention at home either. Research found that 3 in 4 parents have not discussed domestic violence or sexual assault with their children, and nearly half have not discussed dating violence, falling behind many other topics of discussion including school, work, and family finances (Avon Foundation, 2016; Rothman et al., 2011). As a result, girls are insufficiently equipped to identify abuse or seek help. The results are sobering: 57% of young women have difficulty identifying dating violence symptoms, and only 33% of teens who are in an abusive relationship report their abuse (Branco, 2018; Liz Claiborne Inc., 2005). When youth are victimized, it becomes a barrier to healthy and fulfilling relationships, careers, and lives. Experiencing violence results in a myriad of poor outcomes (some lifelong) including, but not limited to, anxiety, depression, self-harm, substance abuse, lower grades, expulsion and suspension, diabetes, heart disease, and increased involvement with the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. (Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration, 2020).
The COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened the situation by increasing the risk of violence against girls and simultaneously decreasing the availability of physical and emotional supports for youth. According to a recent report, the COVID-19 pandemic has trapped many victims of violence at home with their abusers or potential abusers, in conjunction with increased health and financial stressors, putting women and children in particular at an increased risk of victimization (American Psychological Association, 2020). Furthermore, due to school closures, girls are experiencing unprecedented levels of isolation/loneliness (79%) and depression (25%) (ROX Institute, 2020). In parallel, the Black youth that we serve are enduring another distinctive source of trauma: prominent examples of racial injustice and police brutality against Black lives. As these public health crises continue to grow, we anticipate that their negative effects on physical and mental well-being will be felt for years to come. However, there are demonstrated methods to reduce victimization and associated trauma. Major studies confirm that women are up to 60% less likely to be assaulted after participating in a physical self-defense course (Hollander, 2014; Sarnquist et al., 2014; Sinclair et al., 2013). Furthermore, developing a support network, and learning key social-emotional skills including self-efficacy, non-violent problem-solving, emotional regulation, boundary setting, and communication, reduces the risk and aftereffects of violence (Centers for Disease Control, 2020).
The need for violence prevention resources for girls, trans girls, and nonbinary youth in Greater Boston that go beyond self-defense skills is clear. Girls’ LEAP fills an important niche in combining self-defense with social-emotional skills. Our curriculum develops protective factors against victimization and perpetuation of violence, including self-esteem, non-violent problem-solving skills, healthy anger management, a supportive community of peers and mentors, learning opportunities during out-of-school hours, and decision making in difficult situations (CDC, 2018). Girls and nonbinary youth recognize and develop their physical strength by experiencing the power in their bodies; this, in combination with the socio-emotional skill building, gives them the confidence to use their voices, set boundaries, create healthy relationships and develop into leaders. The value of this synergy is underscored by our assessments and in the transformations we witness.
In Zeinab’s words, “My time at Girls’ LEAP has been transforming…before…I was someone who was shy, timid…but after Girls’ LEAP I discovered how to be my own person and how to find my voice… that was life-changing for me.”