Adele Heagle. (Photo: Eoin Anderson)

Topics: Ethical Living | Health

25-year-old empowers Ontario girls through sex-ed

Thanks to Adele Heagle and other volunteers, girls in several cities have safe spaces to ask questions and learn

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Adele Heagle, 25, is the founder of Indigo Girls Group in Guelph, Ont. For the past five years, she has run, along with many dedicated volunteers, a unique and expanding program in many Ontario cities that is organized and led by young women, for young women and girls ages 10-18. 

Indigo Girls Group has girls’ club branches in Guelph, Kingston, Ottawa, London and Toronto. All programs are free and run by volunteers. 

Heagle has a master’s degree in public health and international development from the University of Guelph, and has researched the ethics of adolescent reproductive health work with Syrian refugee girls. Other volunteer leaders have studied medicine, gender, psychology and biomedical science. 

Broadview chatted with Heagle recently about her visionary club, and why sexual reproductive health is a key component of the programming.

Q: There are a few girls’ groups available throughout Ontario, but there’s certainly something unique and different about Indigo Girls Group. Why did you decide to start it?

A: As a child and adolescent, I was fortunate to be supported by family, peers and other women. At the same time, I witnessed strained support among many of my female peers and close friends. I realized how critical it is to engage with peers and role models during adolescence. It was a combination of my personal experiences and a recognition of a programming gap that spurred IGG’s creation.

Q: What were those gaps that you saw in other programming?

I failed to find programs that provided a space specifically created for young girls and adolescents. Programs that were free, led by young volunteers and modelled in a flexible way. Despite Guelph being home to wonderful initiatives, there were none I found which ticked off each of these boxes. With the support and empowerment of other women, I decided to start my own.

Q: Your website states that you started IGG with the aim to educate and empower girls navigating today’s societal issues and pressures. What does that mean practically for the programming you provide?

A: All of our programs create spaces for girls to learn from each other and lift each other up.

Our main program is our weekly girls’ clubs. These clubs bring a group of girls together to share their time, energy and experiences. They’re run by two to four young women under 30. Each club covers topics members want to learn about, they’ll discuss issues the group thinks are pressing, and develop skills the girls are interested in. That might look like bringing in a self-defense instructor one night or creating a dialogue on puberty.

We also run conferences and workshops, which create a similar meaningful narrative — but in a more condensed way.

Q: Tell us a bit more about your popular (and free) girls clubs?

A: The clubs are run out of community centres, libraries, schools or other community venues. When we can, we liaise with schools and run the programs through either a collaboration with the school or the school board. Each club is unique and different. If we run a club out of a school, we often have girls attend from that school, but then they might also bring friends from their neighbourhood too, or girls who don’t attend the school might hear about it and come.

We don’t necessarily collect identifying information for each club and their members, but I have the sense that attendance depends on the accessibility of that space within the city or town of the club.

We also gear our advertising to the type of community that we’re working with. For a more urban setting, we might have flyers up in coffee shops or on social media. For more rural areas, we advertise in community centres, flyers or within the school.

Q: One of the areas that Indigo Girls Group stands out is in its sexual reproductive health programming. What does that programming look like, and why is it important for you to educate and empower young girls in this area?

A: Our work specifically on sexual reproductive health is actually more recent. IGG targets girls ages 10 to 18 years old, and sexual health is a massive part of their growing up and everyday life. When comprehensive sex education is delivered in an accessible and effective way, young people make more informed and safer sexual choices.

It includes talking about healthy relationships, understanding gender and sexual identity, general well-being and puberty. Sexual reproductive health is a critical component of public health in every community. Often these issues, challenges, stigma, and negative outcomes can disproportionately impact women and gender-diverse persons, adolescents, and the LGBTQI+ community.

We are young women sharing our knowledge of sexual reproductive health with fellow young women. That is our niche. But our work cannot be done alone, and it is so important that these efforts are coupled with similar conversations across other gendered (and non-gendered) identities, in ways that speak to individuals’ intersecting identities and experiences.

Q: With recent new legislation, enacted by the Ontario government, have you felt increased passion and motivation to fill in the gaps through programming offered by IGG?

A: I was definitely already drawn to incorporate sexual reproductive lessons into Indigo Girls Group. Especially because of the knowledge I gained through my public health master’s [program], and my job working in the global sexual and reproductive health field. It’s also a recurring topic the girls want to learn about throughout so many of our clubs.

The status of sex education in Ontario provides an opportunity for us as an organization to partner with fellow organizations, educators, teachers and individuals that have expertise in sexual health, many who have been advocating for sex education for decades.

One of the most exciting components of our girls’ clubs is the anonymous question box we have out each week. Girls are invited to write down questions they have on the weekly topic, like things they want to learn more about, or they can share general words of affirmation. Volunteers started noticing that there were certain questions that continued to emerge regardless of the girls’ ages or the city they lived in. These often fell within the realm of sexual health — they were questions around how to deal with young love, period pain and body changes.

More on Broadview: When faith and tradition collide with sexual education

Q: You’ve advocated publicly for better sex education in the school system, including your recent workshop with IGG and Oxfam Guelph. What is lacking in our current Ontario sex education curriculum?

A: I’m hesitant to call myself a sexual health expert. Even though my background is in health, and I learned a great deal about sexual health in my education, I know there is a lot more for me to learn — especially in the role of a sexual health educator.

I think with any curriculum, there is always room for improvement, especially as evidence changes, social norms evolve and people’s sexual health understanding diversifies. It is also important to reflect on the fact that sadly, not all sex education is comprehensive sex education.

When I think of our weekly question box, and I see the sexual health questions being asked by our girls, there’s evidence that they’re not getting answers to these questions through the sex education at school.

Looking back at my own experience as an Ontario high school student, and the other volunteers’ experiences, we remember gaps in our sex education too. When I think about topics like consent, online safety, sexual pleasure, sexuality (beyond heterosexuality), sex versus gender, and sexually transmitted infections, these are all topics that were limited, at best, in my own health class.

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  • says:

    This sounds like someone who has finally made a great leap in the right direction for young women. I noted that she is younger and can relate to the needs of her participants. Hopefully she has a senior mentor who can share some wisdom about aging as well (which should also be passed down).