05/16/2016 11:59 EDT | Updated 05/17/2017 05:12 EDT

Empowering Adolescent Girls Strengthens Women's Rights Worldwide

You're 14. You're alone in a refugee camp. And you wake up in pain, blood dripping down your thigh. Panicked, with no one to turn to as you get your period for the first time, you're a woman now -- but all you want to do is cry.

This milestone means you can now be married and have a baby, and your dreams of going to school and building a bright future begin to fade.

This is a terrifying yet all-too-common reality for adolescent girls in developing countries. They are among the world's most vulnerable people and their rights are often trampled on, particularly in times of emergency or humanitarian crisis, like the El Niño-induced drought that continues across parts of Africa and Asia, or earthquakes that have wreaked havoc in places like Ecuador or Nepal.

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Adolescent girls living in Zimbabwe impacted by the El Nino-induced drought. (Photo: Plan International Canada)

The world must stop looking away. We need to step up and create a more equitable world, where the rights of girls and women matter just as much as those of boys and men.

We're not there yet. I recall meeting a young girl in Cambodia who never shared her name but shared her story. Her family was in debt from renting land to help sustain their livelihood after a natural disaster. As debt mounted, her family decided to sell her into the sex trade industry so they could pay their bills. This girl's rights to her own body were taken away. She had no say, no control. Sadly, she is not the only girl to be robbed of her rights -- not by a long shot.

The painful fact is the first thing to be compromised during a humanitarian emergency is the integrity of girls' rights. The everyday realities of many adolescent girls -- which often include early marriage, discrimination and lack of access to education -- are made far worse in the wake of a major disaster.

Worldwide, 15 million girls under 18 will be married each year; that's 41,000 each day, nearly one girl every two seconds. The second leading cause of death in 15-to-19 year old girls globally is complications from pregnancy and childbirth, which are often the result of child, early and forced marriage.

This reality needs to change and it requires the kind of critical attention and focus of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a new set of benchmarks endorsed by Canada in September 2015 to help frame global development work over the next 15 years. The SDGs aim to leave no one behind -- including adolescent girls.

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The youth had an open dialogue about the challenges young women face in Canada and proposed solutions. (Photo: Plan International Canada)

Crucial conversations on how best to move the needle have already started. At the recent UN Commission on the Status of Women summit, for instance, Plan International Canada collaborated with the Honourable Patty Hajdu, the Minister for the Status of Women, and the Honourable Marie-Claude Bibeau, the Minister of International Development, on how to enhance and protect the rights of adolescent girls. I was proud to be part of those conversations and pleased to see some momentum.

Canadian girls get it, too. I was in awe of the 17 young women who sat down with us earlier this month at Plan International Canada's Girls Empowerment Forum with our Celebrated Ambassador Madame Sophie Grégoire Trudeau. They were honest and forthright and they had thoughtful ideas about how we can achieve the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. I will be taking their insights with me to the Women Deliver conference in Copenhagen, Denmark on May 16 to19.

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Caroline Riseboro (left) President and CEO of Plan International Canada, Rosey Edeh (centre) Global TV Toronto News personality, Madame Sophie Grégoire Trudeau (centre) Plan International Canada Celebrated Ambassador, and members of Plan International Canada's Because I am a Girl Speakers Bureau at Plan's Girl Empowerment Forum in Ottawa on May 2. (Photo: Plan International Canada)

I feel confident that we're on the right path, but we cannot slow down. We have an urgent imperative to work together to advance the rights and opportunities of women, starting with adolescent girls, if we can ever hope to achieve the dream of a stronger, more inclusive world for everyone.

The young girl getting her period for the first time in a refugee camp, and millions of girls across the world, are counting on us.

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