Thank you, and good afternoon.
My name is Dr. Claire Crooks. I’m a board member of the Canadian Women’s Foundation, Canada’s public foundation for women and girls. Thank you for inviting us to speak to you today.
We work in three areas: helping low-income women move out of poverty; preventing violence against women and girls; and building strong, resilient girls who grow into productive adults who enjoy safe, healthy relationships.
Through our girls fund, we fund research-based programs for girls that build their protective factors and engage their bodies, minds, and spirits. The programs we fund provide a supportive all-girl environment for girls aged nine to thirteen to explore science and technology, develop healthy relationships with peers and adults, get physically active, learn financial and media literacy, and above all learn to think critically, take on leadership roles, and build strong social connections.
Here I would echo what Ms. Ginn said, in that with our programming for aboriginal girls there's an added layer of promoting cultural connectedness and strengthening ties to elders and other female mentors in the community, which is a really critical piece of programming for that group.
We currently fund 14 programs, operating in 22 communities across Canada. Thanks to some generous donors, we are in the process of doubling that number. Even with that additional funding, however, we are only able to fund 10% of the requests we receive for funding.
In addition to funding front-line community programs, we study and share the best ways to address root causes and create long-term change. We work to build the capacity of community organizations working with women and girls.
Since 1991 we’ve raised almost $65 million from individuals and corporations, and have invested in over 1,100 community programs around Canada. We are now one of the ten largest women’s foundations in the world.
The foundation has asked me to speak to you today as a board member and because of my expertise in the area of risk behaviours in adolescence.
At the Canadian Women’s Foundation, we believe that Canada will only reach its full potential when women and girls reach theirs. The corporations and individuals who support our work believe this too. If we are to have a healthy economy, we need all of our human capital. It is timely and urgent that you are looking at ways to improve the economic prospects of girls.
The message I'm going to deliver today reinforces what Ms. Stinson has offered, but looks at the earlier developmental stage of younger girls. I will make three key points and recommendations regarding the economic prospects of girls in Canada.
First, despite women’s progress over the last few decades, girls in Canada still face unique and significant barriers to their long-term well-being and economic prospects.
Second, research shows that if girls are supported to build specific protective factors at the specific developmental stage of ages nine to thirteen, they thrive and grow into productive adults.
Third, we urgently need a significant investment in our girls and greatly increased funding for girls programs. We need to support what works, and it must include a gender analysis. There is an important role for private philanthropy, but to do it on the large scale needed for Canada’s future economic prosperity, governments must step up.
In terms of barriers facing girls, I’ll touch first on the challenges. It’s true that when girls start school, they do better than boys in reading, writing, and forming friendships. But as girls move into adolescence, this early advantage far too often becomes overshadowed by challenges, with serious implications for girls' long-term health and economic prosperity.
Girls today face pressures that we adults can barely imagine. According to Dr. Blye Frank from Dalhousie University, “The challenges that a 14-year-old girl faced 20 years ago are the challenges faced by 9-year-old girls today.” Every day, girls see thousands of images of women in advertising, video games, TV shows, music videos, and movies. These women are overwhelmingly thin, tall, beautiful, and white. The emergence of social media has amplified these problems.
Today the widespread and rapidly growing sexualization of girls and women has sinister undertones that go far beyond the pressure to look pretty. When girls are sexualized, their intelligence, their creativity—who they are—becomes secondary. This has serious implications for their future economic prospects.
Is it any wonder that by grade 10, girls are three times more likely than boys to be depressed, and only 14% of girls say they feel self-confident? Sadly, more than half of girls in Canada say they wish they were someone else.
Living in poverty, as almost one in ten children do in Canada today, limits the potential of all children. As well, the high rates of violence that girls in particular experience is a major challenge.
If you are a female in Canada today, you are mostly likely to be sexually assaulted when you are between the ages of 13 and 15. Teen dating violence is a serious and common experience all over Canada.
Today, teens in romantic relationships have a one-in-three chance of being abused emotionally, sexually, or physically. According to police reports on dating violence, over 80% of the victims are female. Dating violence is one of the strongest predictors of violence in adult relationships, which we know is a major barrier to women's economic security and participation.
Research clearly shows that the triad of risky behaviours for adolescence—drugs, alcohol, and violence—co-occur. If teens become entangled in just one of these issues, they are more likely to experience the other two. For example, girls in an abusive relationship have higher rates of substance abuse. They are more likely to run away from home, drop out of school, develop an eating disorder, engage in suicidal behaviour, have unsafe sex, and become pregnant. Clearly, the repercussions and the limits on their ability to contribute to the economy can last a lifetime.
Aboriginal girls in Canada are especially at risk from violence and poverty. Incredibly, about 75% of aboriginal girls under the age of 18 have been sexually abused. To address the very serious challenges to their future economic prospects, we must invest in programs that help them to finish high school, increase their safety, and reach their full potential.
So in meeting this challenge, how do we help girls navigate through this minefield of sexual assault, dating violence, hypersexualization, and poverty?
We must reach girls before they enter the minefield. Our research has shown that with the right kind of help at the right time—between the ages of nine and thirteen—girls can learn to challenge these messages, improve their self-esteem and safety, and successfully navigate adolescence.
We must invest in programs specifically designed for girls. Girls repeatedly tell us that this is the only way they feel safe enough to speak up and take on leadership roles. If we can teach a girl to think critically, to feel confident, and to develop strong social connections, we can change the course of her life.
Girls who think critically make better life choices because they understand what influences their decision-making. They learn to recognize the powerful role played by media and peer pressure and learn to weigh these influences against what they actually want for themselves.
Girls who are confident have the courage to take on new challenges. We need large-scale investment in programs where girls explore science, technology, and trades, opening their eyes to new possibilities. We need to prepare girls—half of our human capital—for careers with higher incomes, careers that meet our country’s need for skilled workers.
Girls with strong social connections—those who are connected to schools, pro-social peers, and a caring adult or mentor—feel more of a sense of belonging and safety. They consistently perform better academically than their less connected peers, which sets the stage for further academic and career attainment.
Social connection is one of the strongest protective factors against a wide range of negative outcomes. Connected girls demonstrate lower rates of teen pregnancy, substance use and abuse, suicidal behaviours, and dating violence, all of which significantly interfere with future academic and job success.
Eighty percent of the girls who attend our funded programs increase their skills and knowledge in these three protective factors: critical thinking skills, confidence, and social connection. One girl told us: “I feel different about myself. I know that I’m not totally worthless. I used to think I wasn’t very valuable and stuff. I learned I’m worth more than I thought I was.” Another said, “In this program, I feel like I’m treated like a person, not just a girl.”
We recommend that the Government of Canada make a significant and large-scale investment in girls, supporting programs with a gender analysis that build protective factors and skills. We recommend that you work in partnership with other levels of government and with private philanthropy. This is how we will unleash the potential of half our population and have a healthy society and a thriving economy.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today.