The first girls’ groups were formed in the Åland Islands about 20 years ago. Today there are boys’ groups as well, and the method has spread to the Baltic countries, Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region. The central idea of the method is to facilitate a democratic and non-hierarchical dialogue between a small group of adolescents and their leader. The details of the work may differ somewhat from country to country, but the core approach is always the same, Donielaite explains.
‘We want to encourage critical thinking and give young people strength to make their own decisions and handle conflicts.’
How does the work differ between countries?
‘In Lithuania, the method is intended to prevent sex slavery, and some participants are victims of trafficking. Some groups in Lithuania focus on girls with intellectual disabilities since they run a higher risk of being victimised. In the Nordic countries, the purpose is usually to promote gender equality and prevent violence.’
You cooperate with organisations in non-democratic countries. Have you had any problems?
‘In the Kaliningrad area in Russia, it has been a challenge to get the leaders to understand that the adolescents should be the ones to decide which topics to discuss. They don’t really believe that young people can raise relevant issues. Maybe this shouldn’t be surprising in a country where many things are decided from above. In some countries, like Azerbaijan, the main challenge has been to establish girls’ groups as an after-school activity, since girls traditionally have only been allowed to leave home to go to school.’
Are some subjects difficult to talk about in some countries?
‘Yes. In the material for the groups in Russia, we’ve had to remove the chapter on rights of LGBT persons. Otherwise the method couldn’t be used there. Overall, many leaders feel unsure about how to talk about sexuality, so there is definitely a need for more training there. Many young girls think that they have to agree to sex even if they don’t want to, so it’s a very important subject.’
The work with girls’ groups has been talked about a lot, but how do the boys’ groups work?
‘In the beginning there were only girls’ groups. Then a few years ago, boys started asking us for groups. Strengthening only girls wasn’t enough. Boys are also limited by norms, but unfortunately we have problems finding male leaders. It is important that girls and boys meet in separate groups since preconceptions about gender are forcing them to relate to entirely different ideals. Mixed groups may also make participants feel pressured to behave according to the norms.’
You received funding from the Nordic Funding Scheme 2013 for a network-building project. What are your plans?
‘We’re hosting an event at the Nordic Forum. We will point to the need for a gender perspective in work with young people and the method with girls’ and boys’ groups. Those of us who work with the groups also have a lot to learn from each other, and we need to work together to spread the method and ensure that high quality is maintained. The focus on the gender equality perspective is important. Without it, there is a risk that groups end up reinforcing norms instead of challenging them.
This is an article about one of the projects granted funding through the Nordic Gender Equality Fund.