“The program gives girls opportunities that are hard to find anywhere else.”

In the Juste Pour Elles program, Lea* learned about many social issues facing girls in her community; then she learned how girls could work together to help change them. This Montreal-based violence prevention and education program gives girls tools to recognize and challenge sexual exploitation, building confidence and other strengths along the way. As told to Jessica Howard.

When I first started the Juste Pour Elles program about four years ago, I was shy and didn’t have much self-esteem. I’m 15 now, and a lot has changed since then!

Now, the program facilitator often asks me to take the younger girls under my wing. I see myself in some of them — they remind me how I used to be quiet and feel intimidated when a lot of people were around.

Juste Pour Elles has been so valuable to me because it opened my eyes to many important issues, and showed me how to get involved and speak out. The program gives girls opportunities that are hard to find anywhere else — if you’re a girl, it will only benefit you.

In our sessions, we started by discussing hyper-sexualization and then went on to many other topics, including gender inequality, sexual harassment, and racism. Before the program, I wasn’t aware all these issues existed. I began to realize there were causes I was passionate about and, through various projects, I’ve learned more about how I can help to make positive change.

In one project, we created a booklet called 100% Elles as a tool to help other teens learn about topics including healthy relationships, consent, and sexual exploitation. It was really ambitious. Our goal was to complete the project and then reach out to as many girls as we could in our neighbourhood. We wanted the booklet to show girls that whatever they were going through, they weren’t alone.

We would never have pulled off such a huge project if we weren’t working a team, and that’s what I liked about it. There were moments when I felt overwhelmed and tired but, since all the tasks were split up, we got it done. It showed me the value of teamwork.

The project that had the biggest impact on me was a video that I created about the feminist movement. I researched and wrote about many contributions women have made to society and how they have often been undervalued and objectified. I learned about many feminist activists, and why it’s important for women to unite, raise our voices, and recognize our strengths. When I played it for an audience, I wanted the room to go quiet — and it had the desired effect on people. The success of the video gave me a boost of confidence that I really needed. It showed me that I was capable of doing whatever I put my mind to.

Another reason I love the program is that it provides an environment that’s different from school. Among teenagers, there’s always the fear of being judged — that’s why kids mostly keep stuff to themselves. But at Juste Pour Elles, it feels like we’re a big family. We’re comfortable with each other, and we’re all girls, so everybody speaks their mind. We can be ourselves.

Although I’m getting busier with school and other activities, I want to stay involved as much as I can. The program has given me a lot, so I want to give back. Juste Pour Elles showed me that I already possessed a lot of special skills, and that I just needed to believe in myself. It showed me that once I started believing in myself, I would be able to do big things.

*This participant’s name has been changed for confidentiality.

Juste Pour Elles, which is delivered by La Maison d’Haiti in Montreal, has received funding from the Canadian Women’s Foundation.

Image: Stock