25 April 2023

Fearless Women is bringing back the light for Canberra's struggling teenage girls

| Genevieve Jacobs
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Depressed looking teenage girl sitting on steps, writing 'HELP' in chalk on the bottom step

Mental health outcomes for teenage girls in the ACT are among the worst in Australia. Photo: File.

It’s been almost a year since Fearless Women began operating, and for Nathalie and her mentor Janine, the results have been remarkable.

The pair were matched in a groundbreaking Canberra program, designed to mirror the successful Menslink initiative but directed towards teenage girls who are struggling for a variety of reasons.

Nathalie has spent much of the last year meeting regularly with Janine for group events and casual get-togethers, designed to foster confidence and provide a reliable, safe sounding board for life’s challenges.

“I’ve been able to go out in the community more, it’s really helped with my mental, health and lowered my anxiety a lot,” she says.

Fearless Women CEO Glenda Stevens says that’s exactly what the program is designed for. In addition to the mentoring relationships, Fearless Women also visits schools throughout the Canberra region, talking to girls and young women about the importance of wellbeing, self-empowerment and self-value.

“It all began with some research from the ANU in 2018 that showed the ACT’s girls weren’t doing well,” she says. “Mental health outcomes for girls between 16 and 19 here in Canberra were among the worst in the country, and further research from the YWCA and Mission Australia backed that up.

The research showed that friendship issues, relationships, expectations to do well at school, body changes and social media are all contributing to girls and young women in the ACT feeling overwhelmed, stressed and uncertain about their future.

“Menslink has done amazing work here in Canberra for years, but we wondered, what about the girls? Don’t their challenges matter too?” Glenda says.

It took several years and some generous private seed funding to get the program up and running, with the support of then-Menslink CEO Martin Fisk and others.

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Schools and counsellors can refer girls who aren’t thriving and need support and mentors also apply through the website. A detailed process to pair mentors and mentees is important

“They’re regular women, many of whom have had their own challenges”, Glenda says. “Some had mentors themselves, some wished they had, and they have been amazing with the girls”.

The process has been deeply rewarding for Janine, who has a long history of volunteering throughout her career in IT.

“Our role is to listen, find connections with our mentees, hear about their lives and draw out what’s bothering them – whether that’s school, friends, other issues,” she says.

The pair share activities together and with the group – which at one point included learning hip-hop together. “My knees did not thank me”, Janine says wryly.

Together they also worked on a fundraiser for Pegasus Riding for the Disabled with other mentors and mentees, making pony-shaped biscuits and raising $700 for the beloved Canberra charity. There might be a trip to the show, or just a yarn over coffee at Maccas.

“It’s not about guiding conversations”, Janine says. “This is about developing friendships and giving the mentees someone else to talk to. There’s no judgement.”

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Nathalie says she and Janine have become real friends over the past months.

“You can talk about anything you want without getting in trouble. If you didn’t follow Mum’s rules and want to confess, Janine’s a safe person and really easy to talk to, she’s a good trusted adult friend.”

Nathalie didn’t find the group sessions easy at first. She’s naturally shy and her anxiety didn’t make it easy to open up and interact with others in the group.

“At first I didn’t want to do them but Janine helped me to start participating. Over the year I’ve learned to give it a good go and most likely it will be more fun if you try. I was really reluctant at first but I overcame that challenge, which is pretty good.

“I’ve been able to make new friends when I’ve never had that many before, talk to other kids my age and find stuff we have in common. It really did help me a lot.”

Fearless Women supports the pairings and Glenda Stevens says they’re always on the lookout for more volunteers.

The results have been immediate: within three to six months of the program commencing, there was ample evidence of the girls being kinder to themselves, and more engaged with their families and peers. “They were back out in the sunshine”, Glenda says.

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