As Canadian girls grow up, they’re told time and again that they can be whoever they want to be. The reality is far less ideal.

A national report  released in March on the main issues facing girls in Canada shows that despite having more educational opportunities than ever, many girls still confront violence and low self-esteem — sometimes with grave consequences.

According to the study, Beyond Appearances, carried out by the non-profit Girls Action Foundation of Montreal on behalf of Status of Women Canada, a startling proportion of Canadian girls grapple with self-harm, dating violence, harassment and negative body image.

The study highlights that girls’ confidence drops more dramatically than that of boys in their teen years. Girls are using more drugs and alcohol than they did in past decades, and girls age 10 to 14 are five times more likely than boys to end up in the hospital for trying to commit suicide. In British Columbia, a fifth of teen girls have intentionally inflicted self-injury.

The well-being of girls should be a national concern.

Self-esteem is a major issue. Among girls in Grades 6 to 10 who think they are too fat, only half are actually overweight. What’s more, a 10th of Ontario teen girls think they are “no good at all.”

Self-esteem is influenced by hidden messages about how girls should look and act, and these messages are delivered by parents, peers and media.

Girls who don’t fit in or who are marginalized in some way — such as aboriginal girls, those from various ethno-cultural communities, or lesbian or bisexual girls — are at even greater risk of emotional distress, suicide attempts and victimization.

Today’s girls are facing more pressure from more sources to be good, smart, helpful, sexy and liberated all at the same time. On top of that, many girls have to cope with stereotypes about their race or ethnicity. Sound confusing? It is.

Girls with low self-esteem can feel pressured to have sex earlier. More than a quarter of Ontario high-school girls in a recent study admitted that someone had pressured them into a sexual act they didn’t want to perform.

Girls also cope with more subtle forms of violence that go unnoticed. Sexual comments in the hallways, and bullying, may be more than playful banter. “Boys will be boys,” we might say to explain it away. But consider that a quarter of Canadian girls say they don’t feel safe at school.

Once they find school unbearable, girls who fall between the cracks often fall hard in life. Girls who drop out of high school grow up to make about half the average income of male dropouts.

Beyond these shocking facts is inspiring evidence of resilience, like the fact that immigrant girls are more likely to stay in school than their Canadian-born counterparts, even as they encounter bullying and discrimination.

Investing in girls pays off. Think of the economic contributions that more empowered girls will make, and the innovative solutions they will create as tomorrow’s leaders. Plus the costs to society of poor mental health, and of violence, are high. For example, childhood sexual abuse, which inordinately affects girls, costs Canada an estimated $3.7 billion annually, according to a 2003 study published in the Journal of Health and Social Policy.

What’s the solution? We have to change the world in which girls are growing up, as well as empower them to be agents of change themselves.

We can’t gloss over the real challenges in girls’ lives by believing higher self-esteem will solve everything. Policies and programs to improve kids’ mental health and reduce violence must take girls into account.

We need more safe spaces for girls in our communities, places where they can discover their strengths. Girls tend to internalize their difficulties, but in well-designed girls’ groups, they learn that they are not alone and they gain inspiration to create change. Research shows that girls-only programs that focus on assets and skills are far more effective than just reminding girls of the risks before them.

Critical thinking is perhaps the best tool a girl can acquire, so that she can uncover hidden messages about what a girl or woman is supposed to be. If provided with positive role models, and given the chance to raise their voices in their communities, girls can grow into their full potential.

Girls can be whatever they want to be. Empowered girls will help make Canada’s communities, economy and environment even more healthy, fair and secure.

But first we must lower the hurdles that stand in their way, and give them the room to run.

Saman Ahsan is executive director of Girls Action Foundation, a national non-profit organization based in Montreal that works to advance girls’ empowerment

First published in the Montreal Gazette on March 7th, 2013. Republished with permission.

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