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Why teen girls are the most vulnerable group on Earth

Caroline Riseboro, president and CEO of Plan International Canada, is at the centre of an initiative to fill the massive data gap around adolescent women.

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In the last decade, there’s been a noticeable uptick in awareness around global issues facing women and girls — think Because I Am A Girl, or Stephen Harper’s maternal-health campaign. But how many gains can realistically be made when we don’t have all the information about the groups we’re aiming to help? A serious lack of research on adolescent girls worldwide has left their needs — economic, educational and otherwise — mostly neglected. In response, Plan International Canada, an NGO addressing child poverty worldwide, announced the creation of a new data-tracking tool at the Women Deliver conference in May that would hold governments and other NGOs accountable for their progress on issues specific to teen girls: poverty, abuse, child marriage and maternal deaths. We spoke with Caroline Riseboro, president and CEO of Plan International Canada, about the dangers of this significant data gap, and why teenage girls can be potent agents of change.

At the Women Deliver conference, you said that adolescent girls are the most vulnerable group on Earth. Why?

Adolescent girls experience a double layer of discrimination: They’re girls and they’re young. So when we look at some of the indicators, like access to family planning and education, even the ability to eat, often adolescent girls are [forgotten].

What is the discrepancy between teen girls and teen boys?

More than 63 million girls worldwide are not in school, which is about two or three times higher than the number for boys. Girls also tend to suffer more nutritional deficiencies, because they’re the last ones to eat. 12 million girls  are forced into early marriage, and many end up dying during pregnancy. The second leading cause of death for adolescent girls is pregnancy complications.

What kinds of data are we missing right now?

A lot. Organizations track children, so you get girls being lumped into that category, and they track women, but nobody is looking at adolescent girls alone. What’s not getting captured is the number of girls that get access to family planning or secondary education. We also know that, in humanitarian situations, adolescent girls are facing gendered issues, like sexual violence. We just don’t have the stats to tell us what’s happening.


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How do you intend to use the information from the tool?

For the first time, we’re going to be looking at investments in adolescent girls as a measure of progress against the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals [A global to-do list that includes ending poverty and hunger, and improving access to education worldwide]. The tracker, which is a partnership with KPMG and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, will allow us to allocate our resources so that we can really make a meaningful impact. The manifesto of the Sustainable Development Goals is essentially that are going to leave no one behind, so we’ll have a number of organizations, with Plan at the middle, trying to hold governments and civil society accountable.

Depending on your level of privilege, it can be very easy to gloss over how many Canadian children live in poverty, and the ways in which girls are discriminated against here.

That happens all the time. Of the $12.8-billion given to charities by Canadians annually, only 10 percent goes to international organizations helping the world’s most vulnerable. But if girls don’t have rights halfway across the world, do we fully have our rights as women here? We want to encourage Canadians to understand we are only as strong as our most vulnerable. I was reading the paper the other day and there was a hospital in London, England that had seen more than 1200 girls who had undergone female genital mutilation. In London. We did a study on Canadian adolescent girls a few months ago that found one out of two feel like their gender is holding them back, particularly from the type of career they want to pursue. That’s in our own backyard. We have to challenge ourselves and say, “There’s no gender equality around the world, not even in Canada.” We haven’t gotten there yet.

Anecdotally, at least, teenage girls seem to be taken the least seriously of any demographic. Do you think that contributes to them being overlooked?

Yes. In New York at the Commission for the Status of Women, we were talking about economic challenges and the slow growth of the western world, but if we allowed women, particularly adolescent girls, to fully participate in the world economy, we could add another 23 billion dollars to the global GDP. Our own economic prosperity is being impacted because we’re not allowing women and girls to be economically empowered. We know how much women are paid — 73 cents on the dollar — so it affects us here, too.


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Do you ever find it unnerving that you have to make economic arguments for gender equality? As in, it’s not good enough to say, “Hey, we’re people!” — you have to make a business case too.

It is a point of frustration, but at the same time, I’m a pragmatist. If an economic argument is going to resonate and make space for change, then I am happy to make it.

I remember reading a quote by Jane Fonda, which alluded to the idea that young women are the most potent agents of change, but that impetus to speak up goes underground when we hit adolescence.

Adolescent girls are the most vulnerable and excluded population on the face of the Earth, but they’re also the most inherently powerful. Kofi Annan, when he was UN Secretary-General, said that if you invest in the education of girls, they will go on to change the world.  It’s indisputable: They will support their families, and ultimately lift entire communities out of poverty. But a lot of that is about them understanding their rights.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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