Show Respect: ‘Boys are surprised we talk about this, it’s become normalised’

When Marsha Powell looks out of her office window in Lewisham, she smiles to herself when she sees a particular young woman walk briskly past on her way to work. This young woman was one of the first people helped by BelEve, the charity Ms Powell set up 15 years ago to support girls.

“When I first met her, she was unemployed and suicidal with no hope and she had experienced abuse,” Ms Powell said. “She took part in a 12-week programme with us and something reignited inside her. She got her first job. She told me that although she still has problems, she has a sense of purpose.”

The woman benefited from a mentor arranged by BelEve and is one of many success stories that sticks in the mind of Ms Powell, 46, who set up the charity with her two sisters after their mother died in 2011.

show respect: ‘boys are surprised we talk about this, it’s become normalised’

(Neil Webb)

A major part of the charity’s work is running workshops in schools talking to teenagers about sexual harassment. BelEve is one of the beneficiaries of our Show Respect campaign that is seeking to tackle violence against girls by funding healthy relationships workshops in schools in disadvantaged parts of London, an intervention that evidence shows reduces violence against girls by 17 per cent. The charity will receive a grant of £30,000 over two years and will use the money to increase the number of workshops it runs in Lewisham, Greenwich, Southwark and Bromley.

Ms Powell said early intervention is key, and being able to speak to children as young as 11 to 13 about issues such as sexual harassment can nip problems in the bud. Their workshop programme, called It’s That Deep, is designed to raise young people’s awareness of sexual harassment. During the 90-minute lesson, pupils discuss real-life scenarios, such as a friend forwarding them a nude photo of someone else, sexting, cat-calling and “over-staring”.

“Sometimes boys are surprised that we are talking about some of the behaviour as problematic, because it has become so normalised,” she said. “Nobody has ever told them that it’s not normal.”

She added: “Every young person leaves the workshop understanding exactly what sexual harassment is. We want them to understand their role — for example even if they ‘just’ forward on a nude photo, they are still part of the problem. We want them to gain an understanding of what the problem looks like and to be reflective.

“There is laughter but we do talk about how serious it is and the law and how being involved in something could affect your job prospects.”

Ms Powell believes girls face the same fundamental challenges they did 15 years ago, but that social media has amplified issues. “It’s a good and a bad thing. Support groups are at your fingertips but also so are the challenges,” she said. Asked what the big challenges are that young women face today, she listed social media, mental health, confidence and the adultification of black and brown girls.

But despite the huge challenges, she said she is hopeful things will improve. “Young people are more fearless and their ability for social mobilisation is amazing. They don’t feel there is anything they can’t do and they are quick to respond to injustice.”

The Evening Standard’s Show Respect campaign is “really positive”, she said, adding: “The more we talk about these issues and the more people are able to call them out and have the tools to tackle them, the better. We need to keep this conversation alive. It is an ‘us’ problem not just a ‘women’s problem’ and everyone should be championing the cause.”

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