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Empowering girls to exit the gray zone

A Jerusalem-based NGO is proving the verbal, physical and emotional tools to stand up for themselves

There’s been an inspiring trend recently circulating in my Google Alerts for “Violence Prevention.” A wave of fed-up students, high school through university, are taking bold stances against sexual assault. In this past week alone: the Berkeley SGA allocated thousands in grants for improved violence prevention on campus, students of NCCC strung up t-shirts promoting support for victims of sexual violence, and in Mocksville, NC, high school students made 1,000 ceramic “Violets Against Violence” to recognize teen dating violence, with project proceeds going to domestic violence prevention efforts. There are marches, conferences, education initiatives, and other such public campaigns pushing for serious change right now. Changes that push institutions to update their policies, bystanders to stand up, grants for awareness education, victim support and much more.

A young soldier learns how to set boundaries through words and body language with Sharon Bar Lev, a beloved El HaLev instructor
A young soldier learns how to set boundaries through words and body language with Sharon Bar Lev, a beloved El HaLev instructor

Over half of the world’s population are under the age of 30, and as the twenty-year old Prince Al Hussein bin Abdullah II said while leading the UN Security Council meet, our best bet for fighting a global trend in violent extremism is to empower youth through job opportunities, decent living standards and quality education. When youth have a sense of purpose, dignity and belonging — choosing violent alternatives becomes less attractive, and they are more likely to join efforts in positive social change – a message that stings in the wake of the Baltimore Riots.

The Jerusalem-based NGO, El HaLev, designs their self-defense workshops with a similar idea. Building safer communities is the driving force behind all our efforts, and we too see the essential importance of engaging youth. When students are given the opportunity to stand up for themselves with verbal, physical and emotional tools, and are educated on their options for preventing violence and getting help, their standard of living is dramatically improved by something as simple as liberating themselves from fear. A boost of earned self-confidence, and the “Freedom to Choose” one’s own boundaries are what make these workshops beautifully unique.

“Freedom to Choose” is the name of a course that El HaLev offers regularly to groups of women, girls and children. It’s designed as a gateway to personal empowerment, by learning how to deal with and respond to “gray situations.” We all have physical and emotional boundaries, but not everyone really knows they have inherent right to them. These “gray situations” are circumstances where it’s not clear whether we’re in danger or not. Such as instances when someone we trust is pressuring us to do something against our will. When a friendly person asks questions too personal for comfort. Or when a date has gotten a little too close. How many times has that happened to you? For women, these situations are unfortunately very familiar, and they are very avoidable situations that can potentially lead to dangerous ones. The unique instruction method of El HaLev encourages self-confidence and inner strength by experientially addressing fears and anxieties that participants have under threat. By practicing coping techniques that incorporate qualities of balance, intuition, and situational assessment, our attachment to fear which often leads to vulnerability, dissipates, and students find that are liberated in their choice of action.

A common opening exercise in “Freedom to Choose’ is one where a group forms a circle around one individual. Their goal is to leave the circle, but in order to do so, they have to practice using verbal assertiveness and strong body language to deliver their message. Unless the circle is convinced, the individual must continue practicing saying “I want to leave the circle” to “I am leaving this circle.” The exercise teaches students that when they are threatened, they do not have to be nice and shy, their needs are legitimate, and their voice should be respected. For women and girls, who suffer the brunt of these genderized behavioral assumptions, it’s a life-changing lesson. This and many other simulations are key in helping students recognize and avoid unwanted situations that might lead to a real threat necessitating self-defense.

The course has particularly been successful among groups of at-risk teens, Ulpana students, female soldiers, young women in East Jerusalem, and through various high schools throughout the country. Like Prince Abdullah II suggested, allying with young people in campaigns for peace and security, is our greatest hope for effective and lasting change. These youth, often already in the throes of life’s struggles, are thus instilled with a strong lesson on empowerment as they enter adulthood. Our hope is to see those empowered girls be able to rise to their full potential, as partners in building safer communities in Israel. We’re already seeing sparks of success.

About the Author
Leviah Landau is an aspiring optimist, new parent, and "olah" from the Pacific Northwest. She is the founder Lashal Memoirs and works as a personal and family historian creating "life portraits" in prose for clients. Her first privately commissioned book is soon to be printed.
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