Choose To Challenge on International Women's Day 2021

International Women’s Day is an important moment in the year. It's where collectively, we celebrate the acheivements of women, shine a light on issues that affect them and call for gender parity.

**Trigger warning this blog mentions domestic and sexual violence

The theme for 2021

This year's theme is #ChooseToChallenge. "We can all choose to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality. We can all choose to seek out and celebrate women's achievements. Collectively, we can all help create an inclusive world. From challenge comes change, so let's all choose to challenge." Read more from the International Women's Day organisers.

Bethan's story

Here, Bethan will talk to you about why gender parity is essential for women to experience good mental health. She talks about this through the lense of her own life.

An awareness from a young age that we didn't start life on a level playing field

Since I was very little, I have had an awareness that individuals are affected by the circumstances that they were born into. We didn’t all start on a level playing field. Some people had a mountain to climb, others were trundling around in circles and some were born at the top.  

As the years passed, I noticed that these beginnings continued to play out throughout individuals' lives. A lot of people stayed at the bottom of the mountain with the odd anomaly fighting to the top.   

The realisation that where we begin heavily influences our life experiences and events

Later when I studied sociology, I realised that these were the statistics or ‘social determinants‘ that were often referenced in the news or academic texts; where we begin heavily influences our life experiences.

These determinants are complex and made of many different parts. You may be at the top for one factor but at the bottom for another. 

…. I seemed to be one of those with a mountain to climb. Due to my gender, growing up in a single parent low-income family and experiencing mental health problems, domestic and sexual violence. And in other areas I was a person of privilege closer to the top.

A steely determination to not be defined by my circumstances

As a young teen I felt a steely determination to not only understand more about why these differences existed, but to show that the individual can be empowered. 

I wanted to show that my gender, economic status and mental ill health would not define or determine the outcome of my life.  

I have experienced a lot of these things above, however these things by no means define me. 

Education and prevention can make a difference

If myself and my teachers had been taught about mental health when I was in school, I may have known how to manage it from earlier on. Teachers could have known how to spot the signs of mental health problems and how to either offer support or get access to support.

If there had been sex and relationships education around consent and healthy and toxic relationships, I may have understood what had happened to me earlier and reached out for help.  

Also, If I had been taught through media channels and education that I could be in control and empowered as a woman, I may have reached out for support to manage my finances earlier and created a career plan from an earlier age. 

Statistics about women and girls mental health

So, what are some of the statistics that women and girls are trying to overcome today?

According to our 2017 report on mental health of women and girls

  • Today, women are three times more likely than men to experience common mental health problems. In 1993, they were twice as likely.  
  • Rates of self-harm among young women have tripled since 1993.  
  • Women are more than three times as likely to experience eating disorders than men. 
  • Young women are three times more likely than young men to experience post-traumatic stress disorder.  
  • Young women are more likely to experience anxiety related conditions than any other group.  

Context behind the statistics

What is the context behind these statistics?

Domestic violence and abuse

Mental ill-health has a strong association with domestic violence, and there has been a significant increase in levels of domestic violence over recent years.

Recent research with mental health service users in London found that:

  • 70% of women had experienced domestic violence during their lifetimes.
  • 27% of women had experienced domestic violence in the past year.
  • 61% of women reported having experienced sexual violence during adulthood.
  • 10% reported having experienced sexual violence in the past year.

Despite the close association between mental health and domestic violence, there is a poor record of mental health services detecting the issues.

Online culture, social media, body image and pornography 

Online culture and social media can place pressure on young women and impact their mental health.

The report ‘#StatusOfMind’ - on social media and young people’s mental health and wellbeing found that:

  • 90% of teenage girls say they are unhappy with their bodies.
  • Studies showed that when young women and girls view Facebook for only a short period of time, their body image concerns are higher compared to non-users.

Girl guides research found that:

  • Large numbers of girls report holding themselves back from doing everyday things they’d like to do for fear of their bodies being criticised.
  • 37% of girls aged 11-21 say they compare themselves to celebrities ‘most of the time’ or ‘often’.
  • Girls commonly cited social media and online influences as factors contributing to anxiety and poor self-esteem.

Prince's Trust found that:

  • 70% of young women agreed with the sentiment that online portrayals were unrealistic.
  •  69% said that lack of self-confidence was one of the key things that held them back.

However, online culture is a double-edged sword, and half of girls also said they are using social media to empower themselves to speak out.

Pornography and online culture. A survey found that:

  • Many young women are under pressure to adopt pornified roles and behaviours, with their bodies being merely sex aids for male gratification and pleasure.
  • Girls in school report being under pressure for images they don’t want to send, with boys using these images as a form of currency to swap, share and publicly humiliate girls.

The changing culture around social media, the internet and pornography brings issues of control, objectification, consent and sexual power into the lives of young women and girls across the country.

Economic and historical context

There is an economic and historical dimension to increasing mental ill-health in young women and girls.

  • Young women and girls who are from a low-income background are particularly vulnerable in terms of their mental health.
  • There has been a disproportionate effect from government austerity measures which were introduced in 2010 on these vulnerable groups.
  • In total, austerity cuts have cost women a total of £79bn since 2010.
  • Research from House of Commons Library pointed to the disproportionate price that women have been paying for austerity measures, with 86% of the burden for austerity falling on women.
  • Young mothers are another group who have been particularly impacted by the hardships of austerity.
  • Expectations that young women should “have it all” (establishing a successful career before marrying and having children - if they choose to) places a pressure on young women today that was not felt by previous generations.

These are just some of the reasons that women and girls can experience poor mental health.

To find out more read our full report: 'The Mental health of young women and girls: how to prevent a growing crisis.'

Coronavirus pandemic and women's mental health

We must acknowledge the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on women's mental health.

Women make up the majority of frontline health and care workers, are more likely to do unpaid work, are overrepresented in low paid and insecure work, and are more likely to have pre-existing difficulties with debt and bills. They are also more likely to shoulder a higher proportion of caring responsibilities. All of the women in these positions were at greater risk of developing a mental health problem before the pandemic and will be at increased risk as the economic ramifications of the pandemic are realised. It is also the case that women are much more likely to be affected by domestic violence and abuse, the risk of incidence of which have increased during lockdown. 

The Women’s Mental Health Taskforce recommended that women be explicitly considered in all future mental health policy. This needs to happen!

Find out more from our briefing 'Coronarivus: The divergence of mental health experiences during the pandemic'

Recognise the agency of young women and girls

Our report on young women and girls’ mental health highlighted that these difficulties do exist, but that, “It is important to recognise the agency that young women and girls have to protect their mental health, to avoid implying that they are ‘helpless victims’ who must simply rely on the actions of others.” 

Take an empowered stand

Today, we can make an empowered stand as women and girls.

This day means so much because we get a chance to raise awareness around these statistics, make a stand and say they shouldn’t be this way, and that it is not the individuals fault. 

To create a momentum for societal and structural change and to shine a light on those that have defied the odds and show others that with education and campaigning they can too! 

International Women's Day are asking for you to strike the #ChooseToChallenge pose: raise your hand high and show that you commit to choose to challenge inequality, call out bias, question stereotypes, and help forge an inclusive world. Find out more about the challenge.

Find out more about women's mental health

Would you like to learn more about women's mental health. Then check out our A-Z page now.

Learn more now!

Need support?

Need emergency help?

If you are feeling like ending your life, please call 999 or go to A&E and ask for the contact of the nearest crisis resolution team. These are teams of mental health care professionals who work with people in severe distress.