I was 11 years old when I lost my self-esteem.

I had just moved to Canada from Jamaica. Struggling with culture shock and a new school – not to mention the uncertainty of pre-teen girlhood – I desperately needed a mentor, a strong role model who believed in me. Instead, my teacher at the time decided that I was neither bright, nor capable. 

The damage to my self-esteem from that judgment has taken a lifetime to overcome – to remember who I am, and what I can do.

Yet I’m thankful for that experience because it ignited a life-long passion for social justice and advocating for the rights of women and girls.

Support and empowerment shouldn’t be, and quite frankly don’t have to be, privileges. That’s why I’ve dedicated my life to empowering all women and girls – and why, on this International Day of the Girl, I’m calling on Canadians to do the same. 

We owe this to the girls of today and women of future generations. Because even though we live in one of the world’s most prosperous nations, we are still failing our girls in 2017. 

Every day, girls in Canada are bombarded with disempowering messages that tell them how they should look, think, and feel. 

Constant exposure to these stereotypes can affect girls’ mental health, leading to sharp declines in confidence and higher rates of depression. In fact, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, at Grade 6 only 36 per cent of girls say that they are self-confident. By Grade 10, that number plummets to only 14 per cent.

The consequences of this extend from the teen years into women’s careers. Consider that The Atlantic’s Confidence Gap study found that men ask for salary increases four times more than women – and when they do, they ask for 30 per cent more. Men also assess their professional value at 20 per cent higher than women.

Girls emulate what they see – and right now, they’re not seeing enough role models in influential positions and institutions around the world, or here at home. Girls need to believe in themselves. To make that happen, we need to believe in and support them as a society.

So how do we do that? To start, we need to provide more mentoring opportunities to girls. A survey we conducted indicated that of the 50 per cent of Canadian women who had a positive mentor in their youth, 83 per cent believe they are confident now because of it. Having a mentor can help girls learn to approach challenges with confidence, not fear. To have a strong sense of self, not self-doubt. And to ultimately believe that being a girl is a great thing.

Of course, responsibility also lies with advertising and media to support this. Part of my work with the Canadian Women’s Foundation is focused on changing the messages girls see and hear every day. I’ve seen the impact of this change through our own #GirlPowered campaign, which gives girls a platform to challenge negative messages they see by creating and sharing their own positive thoughts.

Last year, girls submitted more than 1,400 messages including, “You get to decide who you want to be” and “Be strong and don’t hold back.” Some of them went up on billboards in Toronto’s busiest areas, which gave participating girls a sense of validation that their voices were heard and mattered. Empowering messages really do make a difference – and we must make it a priority to champion them.

But building resilience and confidence isn’t enough. We still fall short of the systemic change that is needed. This requires businesses, schools and society at large to identify where they may be contributing to the problem and commit to rid their policies and practices of gender discrimination. If we do this, I have no doubt that girls’ fierceness can carry them through anything.

Ultimately, we have a long way to go before every girl believes in herself and realizes she matters. But the only way to change this is to make empowerment a priority. That’s my commitment to our girls – and I hope it’s yours too.

Paulette Senior is the President and CEO of the Canadian Women’s Foundation.

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