by Jarrah Hodge
In the lead-up to International Women’s Day, the Girls Action Foundation has released a new report about the situation facing girls in Canada. Beyond Appearances: Brief on the Main Issues Facing Girls in Canada contains findings from a close review of population surveys and academic literature and shows that girls in Canada face serious and interconnected life challenges, at rates higher than the general public might expect.
I spoke with Saman Ahsan, Executive Director of Girls Action Foundation. She has worked with and on behalf of girls for most of her career.
“There were a couple of statistics that I found really alarming: one was the proportion of girls who try self-harm. In BC we found one in five girls had attempted self-harm in the previous year and that really showed me that the mental health of girls in Canada is something that needs attention,” said Ahsan.
“Another statistic I found alarming is the rate of missing and murdered Aboriginal women. It’s shocking that as a nation Canada can just sit by. I don’t think action is being taken at the level that needs to be done.”
17% of reported missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada were under 18 years old.
Ahsan summarized the situation facing Canada’s nearly 3.6 million girls today:
“Girls are facing a lot of issues that are very intertwined – all the issues they’re facing such as mental health, violence, their career and educational prospects, their physical health – are intertwined and reinforce one another.”
For example Ahsan said many girls experience mental health issues such as depression and anxiety as a result of experiencing violence and feeling unsafe at school. Some of the most disturbing stats in the report were around violence: 46% of high school girls in Ontario reported being the target of unwanted sexual comments or gestures. Four times more girls than boys are sexually abused and 75% of the time it is by a family member or friend. The situation is even worse for girls with disabilities.
“A quarter of Grade 10 girls don’t feel safe in their schools,” Ahsan said, “And then mental health issues affect your career prospects by making it more difficult to reach their full potential.”
The report also pointed out that many girls are impacted by additional systemic barriers caused by factors including “poverty, rural location, racialization, immigration, and the colonization of Indigenous communities”.
“Among developing countries Canada has one of the higher gender wage gaps,” Ahsan noted, “Girls are told they can do anything and be anyone but when they come into the world they realize there are still these barriers. “
Ahsan and the Girls Action Foundation want policy-makers to see and account for the way that these issues facing girls are pervasive and interconnected. She said she’s glad the federal government has recognized the need for this kind of analysis, “but it has to be in every department across the board.”
And it’s important that that policy work and community-based projects include girls in the development. In the Girls Action Foundation, girls are involved in helping shape the programs. Ahsan wants to make sure politicians and organizations don’t consider girls as victims or passive recipients:
“They are agents of change and they are strong and resilient. They are just lacking in some support. If we give them that support they can make change, if they are empowered.”
If you’re interested in getting involved with Girls Action, in starting your own program or supporting existing actions, visit http://girlsactionfoundation.ca/en/get-involved.
(photo courtesy of Girls Action Foundation)