How has patriarchy affected girlhood?

9 October 2023

On International Day of the Girl, Community Campaigners delve into the enduring effects of patriarchy on girls and girlhood, highlighting conversations about equality, justice, and the ways girls are fighting back.

Girl-led research

An illustration shows girls' struggle for safety on their streets. Photo: ActionAid

On this International Day of the Girl, we are inspired by the tenacity of adolescent girls continuing to challenge unequal power dynamics that affect their everyday lives, like girls in Ethiopia, Indonesia and Bangladesh who led ‘ActionAid’s Girl-led research: how we build power together’.

As Community Campaigners, we volunteer our spare time to campaign with ActionAid UK. Today, we reflect on how the patriarchy has affected our girlhood - from access to public space, value being placed on appearance rather than intelligence or our ambitions and assumptions around caregiving.

International Day of the Girl serves as a powerful reminder on how deeply entrenched patriarchal power is and on the importance of building solidarity with girls who continue to defy and dismantle the structures of patriarchy.

These structures shape inequalities for girls around the world, such as the right to be listened to, to access quality education and information, support services, and community spaces, to make decisions about their own bodies or to live free from violence.

The impact of shame

The impact of this shame on my ‘girlhood’ is ultimately that I do not know what my ‘girlhood’ is."

A patriarchal society brings feelings of shame to all of us and can manifest in so many ways: The shame of bleeding every month - masking the sound of the pad while someone dries their hands; the shame of not feeling ‘manly’ enough - the anxiety of protecting and providing; the shame that comes from doubting your abilities - imposter syndrome in the workplace.  

The impact of this shame on my ‘girlhood’ is ultimately that I do not know what my ‘girlhood’ is.

After spending 20 years swerving in and out of the boxes society loves to place us in, I fear that my ‘girlhood’ has been broken down and spread out into a thousand tiny pieces.

So where do we begin and patriarchy ends?"

I find myself reading the room and acting accordingly, something we all do far too much. I have had the privilege of being educated on this, of learning and growing, and yet I still find myself craving what is expected, soft, gentle me, seeking validation from the male gaze.

The bittersweet reality is, it seems that it’s not about how much I learn, but unlearn.   

And yet anyone who knows me will be shocked at these revelations, I am a strong woman, I will never cower or be patronised or belittled, but therein lies the problem, am I strong or have I had to be strong?

Patriarchal conditioning does not discriminate and we are all subject to its venom. So where do we begin and patriarchy ends? If the key to knowing what our true ‘girlhood’ is unlearning societal conditioning to find our authentic self, where do we start?  

 - Chloe, London

The burden of beauty

I think of the burden of beauty put onto bodies too fragile to handle it."

“I want to fix my nose when I get older.” I announced to my friend. I was twelve years old. She must have laughed. I did not notice though; I was too busy scrutinising everything else in the mirror.

“This should make me fairer.” I thought to myself as I lathered yet another product onto my face. My friend would have laughed had she been there, but she was too busy doing the same.  

When I think of girlhood, I think of the burden of beauty put onto bodies too fragile to handle it. Ones that are tasked with chasing an unattainable ideal forever.

I think of us being constantly bombarded with advertisements - ones that make us constantly obsess over nothing but appearance, nothing but everyone else’s opinion of us, and just how important it is to conform.

I think of not wanting to be judged by what I wear. To not have my peers be stereotyped as incompetent based on appearance alone in a school, by teachers. 

Because we have beauty with brains. - characteristics assumed to be inherently, entirely, separate from one another, especially for women. 

I think of girlhood as a lost opportunity for what could have been."

But I also think of us sticking together. I think of us voicing collective frustration at unfair dress-codes. I think of us voicing collective disdain at familial judgments.  

I think of girlhood as a lost opportunity for what could have been. One which gets cut short by society’s contempt for lives without restrictions, and dreams without boundaries.  

- Mishita, Edinburgh

Fighting for basic rights

 I can’t help but feel we’re going back in time."

It has been over a decade since October 11th became International Day of the Girl. It’s intriguing it took that long to celebrate girls around the world, but I suppose that summarises the control at the hands of the patriarchy.  

I remember when I was a child, seeing the news about a young girl called Malala being shot for speaking up about girls' access to education. A few years later, as a teenager, women’s marches took over the world in protest of the shackles that the patriarchy was trying to tie us down with.

And now as an adult, I can’t help but feel we’re going back in time.  

I’m reminded that we will never be silenced. "

Only in the past two years, Roe v Wade was overturned; a young Iranian woman was killed for not wearing a hijab, and news stories every week about young women being murdered at the hands of men. This is not the world I want to be a part of.  

My heart cracks a little more every time I see another attack on women and girls, but it slowly begins to mend itself when I see the uproar that takes place as a result. I’m reminded that we will never be silenced.  

So for every little girl nursing their baby doll, the thing that will make you a woman is not necessarily the plastic prediction you are cradling in your arms, but the courage you hold in your heart that you will use to fight “like a girl” for what you believe in one day.  

- Sienna, London

Misogyny at home

Comments about wearing makeup or liking ‘girly things’ would be used as a weapon to demean teenage girls..."

As an adult looking back on the internalised misogyny that I experienced as a child, it has been disappointing to remember incidents where this occurred, yet it has also been empowering to see how far society has come in valuing a women’s place in society in the past twenty years. 

Something which particularly stood out to me when I look to my past, was outward expressions of femininity and how it interfered with how professional one appeared. 

Comments about wearing makeup or liking ‘girly things’ would be used as a weapon to demean teenage girls who had the drive and aspiration to break into classically male-dominated career fields, such as finance or engineering. 

I even recall being told that dentistry would not be a good profession for myself as ‘it’s not suitable for a woman,’ due to being in close proximity to male patients without having other staff present in the surgery.

Every girl deserves ... a right to education."

On the other hand, I heard comments about how I should go into dentistry, as ‘it is way better for a woman than doing medicine, where you would struggle to have a family.’

With comments like these being aimed at young women in society, it seems that there can be judgement and barriers found not only within our schooling systems and professional environments but also at home, where cultural values can also come into play. 

From my own experience and the experiences of those around me, I realised the importance of fighting for a more equal society where comments like these are not made in public or behind closed doors, and this is something I will continue to challenge and fight for.

Every girl deserves not only a right to education (a struggle in itself for many young girls across the globe), but also access and encouragement to pursue her ambitions and build a career for herself.

- Zahraa, Cambridge

Would you like to get involved?

ActionAid UK’s Community Campaigners are supporters who volunteer some of their spare time to engage with our work on a deeper level. This opinion piece is a part of our campaigning activities. If you like this, you can also check out Bella’s ‘An Ode to Adolescence’. Want to get creative in challenging patriarchy? Join our network to build solidarity within a global movement.   
You could attend online or in-person events, training and meetings, and help shape our campaigning activity. Join our global movement building power with women and girls by signing up here or emailing us at to find out more.