Special Considerations for the Girl Child

Gender and other intersecting forms of diversity must be taken into account to fully meet the needs of Canada’s young people. Gender socialization, especially as it intersects with age, race, class, ability and sexual orientation has a particular impact in a young person’s life.

From an early age, children learn what is expected of them as girls and boys. Today’s girls receive conflicting messages. They are supposed to be both liberated and traditional, a contradiction that produces great pressures in their daily lives. Girls’ socialization to ‘be nice’, constant unrealistic standards of physical attractiveness and the sexualization of girls and women in the media are all implicated in a disproportional array of physical and emotional health problems, including eating disorders, depression and low self-esteem.  Among the overall female population in Canada, rural, Indigenous, racialized and immigrant girls are often particularly marginalized and so most vulnerable.

Statistics across the country illustrate how girls’ experience of discrimination and violence differs from boys:

  • Girls experience sexual assault at much higher rates than boys—82% of all victims under the age of 18 are female.Footnote1
  • Rates of sexual offences are highest against girls between the ages of 11 and 14, with the highest rate at age 13.Footnote2
  • Girls are four times as likely as boys to be sexually assaulted by a family member.Footnote3
  • When girls are sexually assaulted, over 80% of the time the perpetrator is someone they know.Footnote4
  • Women and girls in vulnerable situations are particularly affected by violence, including Aboriginal, African Canadian, and those with disabilities.(CRC Committee’s Concluding Observations re Canada, December 2012.)
  • Up to 75% of Indigenous girls under age 18 have been sexually abused.Footnote5
  • Some men deliberately seek out Indigenous women as targets for attacks.Footnote6
  • In grade six, boys and girls report the same levels of depression—about 25% says they feel depressed at least once a week.Footnote7  However, by grade ten rates of depression in girls have jumped—they are three times more likely than boys to be depressed.Footnote8
  • For girls, depression typically stems from “low self-esteem, negative body image, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, and stress.”Footnote9
  • In one BC study, 50% of girls reported wishing they were someone else.Footnote10

Other Canadian and non-Canadian studies show:

  • Widespread sexualization of girls and women plays a major role in the deterioration of girl’s mental health. According to the American Psychological Association, sexualization occurs when a person’s main value is believed to come from their sexual appearance—rather than their intelligence or other qualities—and when they are held to unrealistic standards of physical attractiveness.Footnote11
  • Sexualization is linked with the three most common mental health problems facing girls: eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression.Footnote12
  • Children sexualized in media are 85% female.Footnote13
  • In popular movies, only 30% of all speaking roles are female – females are often absent or silent.Footnote14
  • Children’s television programs use male characters two to one over female characters.Footnote15
  • Children’s board games revealed similar themes—the images on the boxes typically show boys running and taking an active role, and girls standing quietly or even appearing nervous.Footnote16

Too often researchers, programmers and policy-makers overlook the unique vulnerabilities of girls in the national context. This omission may be partly attributed to a mistaken sense that gender equality has already been achieved, and that threats and discrimination disproportionally affects girls elsewhere than in Canada. However, policies, programs and practices devised for ‘children and youth’ that are not gender sensitive may miss the mark for responding to the particular needs of both girls and boys.

In 2015, Canada was ranked 23rd on the UN Gender Inequality Index. Canada has been strongly criticized by several UN bodies because of women’s poverty and the endemic violence against Aboriginal women and girls.Footnote17 

In 2012 the Committee Against Torture recommended that Canada “enhance its efforts to end all forms of violence against aboriginal women and girls by, inter alia, developing a coordinated and comprehensive national plan of action, in close cooperation with aboriginal women’s organizations […].Footnote18 The same year, the Committee on the Rights of the Child advised Canada to “[e]nsure that the factors contributing to the high levels of violence among Aboriginal women and girls are well understood and addressed in national and province/territory plans.”Footnote19 It also affirmed that it was “gravely concerned about cases of Aboriginal girls who were victims of child prostitution and have gone missing or were murdered and have not been fully investigated with the perpetrators going unpunished.”Footnote20 Also in 2012, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressed its concern “that Aboriginal women and girls are disproportionately victims of life-threatening forms of violence, spousal homicides and disappearances,” and urged Canada to take appropriate action, including by establishing a national database on murdered and missing Aboriginal women, in consultation with Aboriginal women and their organizations.Footnote21

International Law

The plight of girls has received growing international attention since the 1990’s, which was proclaimed “The Decade of the Girl Child”. Canada then committed to improving the situation of its girl population by ratifying different international instruments highlighted below.

1. The United Nations Fourth Conference on Women Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action

Section L of the Beijing Platform focuses exclusively on the girl child and identifies these objectives for state parties:

  1. Eliminate all forms of discrimination against girls
  2. Eliminate negative cultural attitudes and practices against girls
  3. Eliminate discrimination against girls in education, skills development, and training
  4. Eliminate discrimination against girls in health and nutrition
  5. End economic exploitation of child labour and advance protection of young girls at work
  6. Promote girl child’s awareness of and participation in social, economic, and political life protect the rights of the girl child, and increase awareness of those childrens’ needs and potential;
  7. Strengthen the role of the family in improving the status of the girl child; and
  8. Eradicate violence against the girl child.


2. The Convention against all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)

CEDAW outlines different measures that governments must take to end discrimination against girls and women, focusing on three key areas: civil rights and the legal status of women; reproductive rights; and cultural factors influencing gender relations.

Of particular importance to girls is that CEDAW targets culture and tradition as influential forces shaping gender roles and family relations. CEDAW requires:

  • That to achieve full equality for girls and women, the traditional roles of women and men in the family and in society must change (Preamble).
  • That ratifying nations modify social and cultural patterns to eliminate "prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women" (Art.5).
  • States to take appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against girls and women by providing them equal “access to the same curricula, the same examinations, teaching staff with qualifications of the same standard and school premises and equipment of the same quality” (Art. 10(b)); “same opportunities to benefit from scholarships and other study grants” (Art. 10(d)) and to participate actively in sports and physical education (Art. 10(g)).
  • The elimination of any “stereotyped concept of the roles of men and women at all levels and in all forms of education” in particular by revision of textbooks, school programs and teaching methods (Art. 10(c)). 

For reproductive rights CEDAW provides for:

  • The right of maternity protection (Art. 4(2)) and child-care including mandated child-care facilities (Art. 11(2)(c))and maternity leave ( Art. 11(2)(a)); and the right to reproductive choice (Art. 16 (e)) and family planning (Art. 10(h)).

CEDAW General Recommendation 3 provides that:

  • States parties should adopt education and public information programs to help eliminate prejudices and current practices that hinder the full operation of the principle of social equality of women and girls.

CEDAW General Recommendation 9 says that:

  • Statistical information is absolutely necessary to understand the real situation of women and girls in each of the States parties to the Convention.
  • States parties should make every effort to ensure that their national statistical services responsible for planning national censuses and other social and economic surveys formulate their questionnaires in such a way that data can be disaggregated according to gender so that interested users can easily obtain information on the situation of women in the particular sector in which they are interested.

CEDAW General Recommendation 19 provides among others that:

  • States parties should encourage the compilation of statistics and research on the extent, causes and effects of violence, and on the effectiveness of measures to prevent and deal with violence against women and girls
  • Gender-sensitive training of judicial and law enforcement officers and other public officials is essential for the effective implementation of CEDAW
  • Effective measures should be taken to ensure that the media respect and promote respect for women and girls.

CEDAW General Recommendation No. 28 sets out the core obligations of State Parties under article 2 of CEDAW.

CEDAW General Recommendation No. 32 sets out the gender-related dimensions of refugee status, asylum, nationality and statelessness of women.

CEDAW General Recommendation No. 33 sets out the measures that States must undertake to ensure access to justice to women and girls.

3. The Convention on the Rights of the Chid (CRC)

  • The CRC requires that State Parties respect and ensure the rights set forth in the Convention for each child in their jurisdiction without discrimination of any kind, including based on the child’s sex.
  • The Commission on the Status of Women recommends referring to standards set in both the CRC and CEDAW when issues pertaining to girls are indicated. In other words, rather than looking at the articles in the CRC in a gender neutral manner, one should look at their general provisions as offering a wide range of possibilities to address violations that are specific to girls. By reading the CRC with the CEDAW, the distinctive needs of the girl child can be prioritized.

General Recommendation No. 13

  • The Committee recognizes that both girls and boys are at risk of all forms of violence, but violence often has a gender component. For example, girls may experience more sexual violence at home while boys may be more likely to encounter and experience violence within the criminal justice system.
  • States parties should ensure that policies and measures take into account the different risks facing girls and boys in respect of various forms of violence in various settings. States should address all forms of gender discrimination as part of a comprehensive violence-prevention strategy. This includes addressing gender-based stereotypes, power imbalances, inequalities and discrimination which support and perpetuate the use of violence and coercion in the home, in school and educational settings, in communities, in the workplace, in institutions and in society more broadly.
  • Men and boys must be actively encouraged as strategic partners and allies, and along with women and girls, must be provided with opportunities to increase their respect for one another and their understanding of how to stop gender discrimination and its violent manifestations.

General Recommendation No. 10

  • Since girls in the juvenile justice system may be easily overlooked because they represent only a small group, special attention must be paid to the particular needs of the girl child, e.g. in relation to prior abuse and special health needs.
  • It is essential for the quality of the administration of juvenile justice that all the professionals involved, inter alia, in law enforcement and the judiciary have appropriate training on the content and meaning of the provisions of CRC with special attention to girls and children belonging to minorities or indigenous peoples.

General Recommendation No. 4

  • The Committee urges States parties to develop and implement awareness-raising campaigns, education programs and legislation aimed at changing prevailing attitudes, and address gender roles and stereotypes.
  • Adolescent girls should have access to information on the harm that early marriage and early pregnancy can cause, and those who become pregnant should have access to health services sensitive to their rights and particular needs.  States parties should take measures to reduce maternal morbidity and mortality in adolescent girls, particularly caused by early pregnancy and unsafe abortion practices, and to support adolescent parents.  Young mothers, especially where support is lacking, may be prone to depression and anxiety, compromising their ability to care for their child.  The Committee urges States parties (a) to develop and implement programs that provide access to sexual and reproductive health services, including family planning, contraception and safe abortion services where abortion is not against the law, adequate and comprehensive obstetric care and counselling; (b) to foster positive and supportive attitudes towards adolescent parenthood for their mothers and fathers; and (c) to develop policies that will allow adolescent mothers to continue their education.
  • All health facilities, goods and services should respect cultural values, be gender sensitive, be respectful of medical ethics and be acceptable to both adolescents and the communities in which they live.

4. The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography.

The Optional Protocol recognizes in its preamble that girl children are at greater risk of sexual exploitation and are disproportionately represented among the sexually exploited.

5. The Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others.

6. Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention on Transnational Organized Crime, 2000.

Canadian Law

Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms provides for equality before and under the law and equal protection and benefit of the law irrespective of one’s sex.

Practice Essentials

  • Be aware that girls experience discrimination and violence differently from boys because of persisting cultural attitudes and stereotypes towards male and female roles.
  • ‘The best interest’ of the girl child should be determined with due regard to the specific needs and vulnerabilities of girls in Canada and the principles from the Beijing Platform for Action and CEDAW.
  • Understand that intersecting vectors of discrimination and the legacy of colonialism place aboriginal girls among the most vulnerable sector of the population in Canada.
  • Programming, policies and legislation must be gender sensitive to meet the needs of the girl child.
  • Violence prevention strategies for girls often require additional life skills, education, safe housing, medical services, mental health supports, culturally-appropriate and safe health care, and a coordinated and complete approach to service delivery.
  • Be aware that ‘victim blaming’ attitudes in cases of gender-based violence are persistent within law enforcement, the judiciary, as well as health services; lawyers working with girl victims of sexual violence must strive to eliminate such attitudes.