Families are fighting to save a British institution in France after it was announced that British Girlguiding Overseas (BGO) is to cease operations.
BGO was first established in Portugal in 1911 and now has 2,600 members across the world.
In France, there are 14 units located in Ile-de-France and Toulouse, welcoming 100 members and 37 volunteers, with sections of Rainbows, Brownies, Guides and Rangers for girls aged four to 18.
Laws and regulations of 36 different countries
Girlguiding is a charitable organisation that offers various activities and the chance to earn badges – the equivalent of Girl Scouts in the US.
In a statement published on its website, Girlguiding UK announced it would “end organised guiding run by Girlguiding UK (units, volunteer structure, trips and online meetings) in these countries and territories from September 1, 2023”.
It cited the difficulties of running “an overseas operation in 36 countries and territories across the world, each with separate laws and regulations”.
14,500 signed petition
The news came as a shock to volunteers in France, who say there was no prior consultation.
“We are devastated,” said Jodie Shaw, co-founder of a group in Paris and PR adviser for the France and BeNeLux region.
As well as helping English-speaking girls to make friends, Girlguiding “offers continuity for them and their families in moments of transition and offers an important link to their home country, culture and language”, she added.
So far, 14,500 people have signed a petition calling on Girlguiding UK to re-examine its decision.
Girlguiding ‘godsend’ for British girls who move to France
Helen Harrop, a Guide leader in Toulouse, said volunteers felt “blindsided” by the announcement.
She has been involved for the last nine years. Both of her daughters were in the Girl Guides in the UK, and they were able to continue after the move to France.
“We moved them over when they were eight and 10, and they didn’t speak French.
“Now they are well-adjusted and bilingual, but at the time they didn’t know anybody and couldn’t communicate with school friends, so it was a godsend for us,” she said.
“My eldest said there were times when it was the only bright spot in her week.”
She says for British girls who move to France, it “gives them a bridge from one part of their life to another part of their life.”
Other members have a British parent, or are French but go to an international school, and they have in common the fact they are “not fully French or fully British.”
Remembering the most recent camp, Ms Harrop said: “There is a Guide who is quite shy, and the mum said she’s seen her really thrive and shine in a place she clearly feels comfortable. It’s a shame that’s going to be lost.”
She is hoping Girlguiding UK “will find a way” for overseas activities to continue.
Barred from using UK resources from September
The official statement said “further discussions are now taking place about how girls overseas might be involved in guiding in the future”, but that future is still up in the air.
The French groups have the same programme, structure, uniforms and first aid and safeguarding training as UK groups. They have been told they will not be able to continue using the same resources from September, even if they were to set up as their own organisation,
Want to keep the Girlguiding female-only safe space
Ms Harrop said.Ms Shaw said: “So far, it seems the only possible solution would be to potentially join the British Scouts Overseas (BSO) movement, which continues to operate as normal.”
As well as having different programmes, structures and leadership qualifications, she explained, “the most obvious difference is that Girlguiding is a female-only movement.
“We know that our girls and young members value a female-only safe space for them to express themselves, grow in confidence and have fun.”
British parents will lose community in France
The girls are not the only ones set to lose out – parents and volunteers also enjoy the benefits of a ready-made community.
Alison East, a Brownie leader and district commissioner in Toulouse, said: “When they arrive in a foreign land, young families in tow, with little knowledge of the language and particularly if one parent doesn’t work, it is hard to make friends.
“Having a little connection to the UK, and enjoying time with like-minded adults, can be a life-saver for some.”