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SHANNON O'BRIEN

For girls only

TODAY WOMEN are elected to political office, they run companies, sit in boardrooms, make breakthroughs on scientific discoveries, and achieve in athletics and countless other arenas. As a society, we should be proud. We can all celebrate the fact that there are more opportunities for girls now than there were for their mothers, grandmothers, and the generations of women who came before them. But while our strides must be acknowledged and celebrated, we should not claim victory quite yet; the playing field may have become more even, but it has not leveled enough.

We have achieved many of the dreams articulated by the courageous women of our past. Many of the rights and privileges they fought for, we have obtained. However, these very strides that have opened more doors for girls and women have brought us a frightening new phenomenon. Girls are increasing their statistics in detrimental categories that historically were predominantly filled by boys. In 2003, one in three juveniles arrested were female (up from one in 50 in the year 1900). In recent months we have seen these numbers personified in local media accounts of heart-wrenching stories about girls involved in violence and using aggression to confront the challenges of their lives. Juvenile correctional facilities are struggling to keep up as girls are being sent their way in record numbers.

Girls today are encountering a far more challenging and complex world, facing issues like teen suicide, drugs, gang involvement, the sex trade, physical abuse, eating disorders, and overall peer pressure for at-risk behavior. Research continues desperately to warn us about the state of young women today. Girls are more likely than boys their age to turn to cigarettes, diet pills, alcohol, and other substances in response to a negative self-image, and the dropout rates for girls continues to climb.

This landscape comes at a time when the number of girl-only community programs and resources is diminishing at record numbers. Researchers claim that only 6 percent of foundation dollars in the Greater Boston area go to programs for women and girls, and state and federal cutbacks continue to create challenges at the local level.

It has been proven that the needs of girls are more likely to be met in gender-sensitive programs. Programs specifically designed for girls provide rich experiences for our young women to explore their personal interests, learn new skills, and ultimately provide them with the guidance and confidence they need to face the challenges of adolescence and adulthood. United Way's Today's Girls, Tomorrow's Leaders and the Girl Scouts are examples of trail blazers in providing quality programs for girls and are models from which we can learn. These initiatives are introducing girls to business and financial literacy, science, technology, the environment, math, wellness, creative expression, and leadership. In addition to things that are just plain fun, they tackle some of the most devastating issues facing girls today.

Programs such as these provide a framework from which we can build, but we will need more if we are to turn our vision into reality. Mayor Menino is soon to announce his prioritization of the needs of girls in Boston, which will include an announcement of an expanded partnership with the Patriots Trail Girl Scout Council. This partnership will mark the beginning of greater collaboration between the City of Boston and groups who can offer constructive and creative alternatives for girls.

Boston is fortunate to have a number of solid non-profit agencies and advocates, and by joining together, we can leverage additional resources, share best practices, and produce better results. In an age of fiscal austerity and with growing numbers of youth and increased pressures on girls, the time for action and collaboration is now.

Shannon O'Brien is CEO of the Patriots' Trail Girl Scout Council.

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