Is Middlesbrough really the worst place in the UK to be a girl?

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My hometown of Middlesbrough is no stranger to coming top in disheartening surveys. In 2007, it was branded the worst place to live in the UK by Channel 4’s Location, Location, Location, and just last week we were slapped with a new depressing statistic: the town in which I was born, raised and have lived most of my life is reportedly the worst place in the UK to be a girl.

Now, as dear a place as Middlesbrough holds in my heart, I am under no illusions. I could write an entire separate article about the excellent parts of the town and how it has improved in recent years, but I know it’s no paradise. We face a lot of social problems, and there are some areas that would indeed probably send a rattled Channel 4 researcher on the first train back to London.

Nevertheless, this new report came as quite a shock to me. Upon hearing it, I racked my brains to think of an occasion when I was made to feel disadvantaged or hindered in my experience of education and employment, specifically because I was born a girl in Middlesbrough. I struggled to think of a single example. I then considered my sisters (I have three) and female friends and acquaintances here – as far as I am aware, the vast majority of us are either in full time education (many in Russell Group universities) or employment (or seeking employment having just graduated). I don’t believe that our gender and hometown have been obstacles in achieving these goals.

I have a feeling that most girls and young women here would agree, if anyone bothered to ask us. Plan International UK (who compiled the report) have probably done an excellent job of collating data and mulling over statistics, but I don’t see the truth of such a damning assessment in the town around me. Along with this starkly impersonal approach, there is something misplaced about the survey’s choice of data too.

I don’t deny that the intentions in producing this report are noble, and I never want to needlessly force attention away from the needs of girls and women. However, as far as I can see, the only indicator considered which specifically affects young girls rather than boys (out of life expectancy, child poverty, GCSE results, NEET statistics* and teenage pregnancy) is the latter. Are little boys simply not affected by poverty, or a low life expectancy? Surely publishing a report on the best and worst places to generally be a child based on these indicators, or a consideration of factors that specifically affect girls, would be more appropriate than this bizarrely blinkered approach?

There are evidently two angles to this particular issue, and they shouldn’t be muddled together as they have been so far. I believe the actual report and its results to be misguided, but within this initiative Plan International UK have also raised the extremely important and worrying issues of sexual harassment, cyber bullying and physical violence faced by girls and young women today. A YouGov survey this year revealed that 85% of young women in the UK have experienced unwanted sexual attention in a public place, and 45% have been subjected to unwanted sexual touching. A quarter of these women reported that they were under the age of 16 the first time this happened.

My youngest sister is 9, and part of a generation who have mobile phones and social media accounts in primary school. Her and her friends have been immersed in the Internet for virtually their entire lives. By no means do I decry this upswing in technology or think that children should be completely shielded from it, but it can’t be denied as a factor in the reported increase in sexually charged behaviour in schools, particularly towards young girls. This issue is real, and absolutely must be dealt with, and it terrifies me that my little sister and thousands of girls like her may have to contend with such expectations before they have even left school.

But this issue is not dramatically worse in Middlesbrough than in any other town, an idea which has been exacerbated by discussion of the report in the media. In an article for the eminent Daily Mail, Sarah Rainey conducted her own exhaustive investigation into what the study meant in ‘raw human terms’. This amounted to interviewing a grand total of one girl from Middlesbrough and one from Waverley in Surrey (the report’s highest scoring area), and then misrepresenting their experiences. Upon actually visiting Middlesbrough, Rainey discovers it is ‘hardly the picture of a town so riven by deprivation that its young women are struggling to succeed’. To pad out her word count she therefore latches onto a made by 18-year-old Molly Ryan (who incidentally has achieved a place at university to study journalism, and wrote her own condemnatory response to Rainey), who mentions that ‘you do get cat-called a lot here’. Rainey uses this to suggest that ‘sexual harassment has become a part of everyday life in Middlesbrough’.

Yes, I have been cat-called on the street, and inappropriately touched in nightclubs in Middlesbrough. But this has happened to me in Durham too, and my university friends, who come from throughout the country, have spoken to me of similar incidents they and their own friends have experienced in their hometowns. Harassment is clearly an epidemic, but to claim it is localised to any specific area is inaccurate, and I cannot in all honesty say it was ever ‘part of my everyday life’ here.

‘Our study shows that a girl’s life chances are tied to where she lives,’ said Plan International UK’s Kerry Smith. Perhaps this is indeed the statistical result of this study, but it isn’t a notion I recognise in my own experience. I have never received anything less than the full support of my family, friends and teachers in Middlesbrough, throughout my entire life.

This cannot be said for women born in Afghanistan, plagued by high maternal mortality rates and an almost complete lack of economic rights. Or Pakistani girls, who face acid attacks, child and forced marriage, and punishment for perceived transgressions by stoning. Or the women of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where 400,000 women are raped every year. The UK may still have gender equality issues, but we have come an incredibly long way. Using a single town as fodder for headlines rather misses the point – and can make us lose perspective.

*Young people not in employment, education or training.

Photograph by Stephen Tierney via Flickr and Creative Commons

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