Last year, the New York Times movingly documented the life of a young girl named Dasani who was growing up in a homeless shelter, forced to live in one crowded room with her entire family.
Dasani’s mother and her boyfriend were recovering drug addicts, and the family didn’t have enough food, diapers, or even privacy. Dasani and her siblings were exposed daily to violence and ugly behavior from the adults around them. Without an effective parent to help buffer the toxic stress, the children were showing signs of anxiety and trauma; Dasani’s teachers noted behavior problems and even suspended her for attacking another child.
Dasani’s story illustrates the toll that trauma takes on young children. And, as we’ve found over and over in our work in distressed public housing communities, girls face unique gender-based risks.
Girls in chronically disadvantaged communities—racially and economically isolated neighborhoods, with high rates of violent crime, unemployment, and family violence—face an environment rife with sexual pressures and norms that place them at risk. Even very young girls are harassed and pressured for sex, labeled “hos” if they give in, cold if they don’t.
Our recent survey of families in public housing in DC showed widespread agreement with statements that girls are to blame if they are sexually assaulted or harassed. Girls in our focus group told of being afraid of retaliation if they didn’t respond to men’s and boys’ comments. Because these pressures are so much a part of daily life, girls don’t expect anyone to help them, adding to their sense of powerlessness.
Although mothers in these communities often try to protect their daughters by keeping them inside, girls are often unsafe even at home. Domestic violence and abuse are widespread, with nearly half of the women we surveyed reported being hurt by an intimate partner (surely an underestimate).
Girls also face the very real risk of being expected to offer sexual favors for money or safety—or of being trafficked to make money for a dealer or pimp. In this environment, harassment, abuse, sexual assault, and the oversexualization of young girls all become “normal,” but are still extremely traumatizing. And girls are at particular risk of being abused and sexually exploited by people they know and love—family members, boyfriends, and even pimps who offer them a sense of protection and belonging.
The costs of this chronic trauma for girls are profound—depression, STIs, physical illness, self-medication with drugs or alcohol, school failure, and teen parenthood. Trauma may drive girls to drop out of school, leaving them facing a lifetime of poverty, diminished self-efficacy, and stunted life chances. Girls who run away or are sexually exploited risk being incarcerated, where they often receive no help for their trauma. Some girls, like Dasani, act out and become violent themselves. Some cities and states are beginning to try new approaches, including referring sexually exploited youth to child welfare instead of sending them to jail.
We are working with the DC public housing community to develop a program for teens to help mitigate the prevalent sexual harassment and pressure. It's a public health approach to improving the outcomes for girls growing up in chronic disadvantage. But while we hope this program will help, there is a critical need for mental health services and other supports to address the trauma girls face. And there is a critical need to elevate this issue and begin a meaningful policy discussion about how to help reduce the gender-based risks facing low-income women and girls and help improve their life chances—and those of their children.