09/25/2012 05:39 EDT | Updated 11/25/2012 05:12 EST

What We Have to Learn from 142 of the World's Girls

This fall, we released a report from this study called, Hopes and Dreams, which provides a detailed look into the girls' lives at the tender age of five. There was good news: the majority of the girls in our study have parents who have high aspirations for them and who promote gender equality in their households.

In my travels across Canada, people sometimes ask me whether our organization only helps girls. I tell them that it isn't the case at all. At Plan Canada, we're focused on children's rights and child protection, and that means rights and protections for all children, male or female.

Nevertheless, it is true that we do have a sharp lens on how girls are faring. We heighten our gaze there because our research tells us unequivocally that in Canada and around the world girls face an opportunity gap and web of constraints of a different nature and magnitude than boys. The research also tells us that girls are key agents of social change, and that by investing in them we can not only support future generations of empowered women, but we can also alleviate global poverty.

Under the rubric of our Because I am a Girl initiative, Plan International has commissioned several reports in the last few years in order to better understand and raise awareness about, specific challenges and areas of opportunities for girls. This report series has been supported by an ongoing research study of 142 girls from nine countries around the globe: El Salvador, Dominican Republic, Brazil, Benin, Togo, Uganda, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines. The study began when the girls were born and will follow them closely up to the age of nine.

Every year, researchers visit the girls and their families to learn about their health, their education, and their daily experiences, over time gaining an understanding of how their gender affects their lives. This fall, we released a report from this study called, Hopes and Dreams, which provides a detailed look into the girls' lives at the tender age of five.

Of the many themes that emerge in the report, one stands out that gives me good reason to feel hopeful about girls' futures. In a world where in the poorest households and countries parents are less likely to spend scarce resources on their daughters' education, and where only 74% of girls between the ages of 11 and 15 are in school - compared to 83% of boys - the majority of little girls in our study - 84% - are enrolled in school or pre-school.

In fact, the majority of the girls in our study have parents who have high aspirations for them and who promote gender equality in their households. More than half want to see their daughters pursue higher education and train to become doctors, nurse and teachers. Many, especially mothers, felt strongly that their own lives had been damaged by the lack of an education, and wanted more for their daughters - a sentiment that cuts across all nine countries in the study. In Cambodia, for instance, one mother recounted how she was orphaned during the Khmer Rouge genocide and never received a formal education, but was ferociously determined to see that her daughter received one.

Besides enrolling them in school, parents like these are making decisions for their daughters that give them a stronger start in life than their mothers and grandmothers had. Like immunizing and registering their daughters at birth - 93% of the girls have birth registration certificates, vital documentation to access education and healthcare, and a potential barrier to trafficking.

Fathers expressed a consistent desire to see their daughters educated, too. They were determined to invest whatever money they could from their meager budgets to pay school fees and related costs for their girls' schooling like books and uniforms. When economic circumstances forced them to make tough choices about which child could go to school, they wanted to make that choice based on a confluence of factors and not simply the child's gender.

But this report doesn't tell us a perfect story.

In fact, many families in the study find it hard to make ends meet, put food on the table, and keep their families healthy - six of the girls have died since the study began - let alone find the resources to build a better future for their daughters.

There are still many countries in which girls specifically and significantly face disproportionate gender expectations and barriers on a number of fronts. For instance, almost all of the girls have daily chores to fulfill by age five, and their primary household responsibilities still include cooking, cleaning, fetching water, gathering fuel and caring for others, while boys do few or none of these tasks.

Girls also face greater threats of gang or sexual violence traveling to school or elsewhere than do boys. In Uganda, Gloria's parents expressed worry about her walking to primary school four kilometers away, not because of the distance but because of the sexual advances that boys made to girls as they walked. And in many ways, girls still have a long way to go to fully enjoy their rights. For example, despite being outlawed in certain countries, female genital cutting is still commonly practiced. And in Togo, while 94 girls go to primary school for every 100 boys, by secondary school, that figure drops to 53 girls per hundred boys.

Clearly, there is still much work to be done. On October 11, 2012, Plan Canada and the world will mark the first International Day of the Girl, a day to draw global focus on girls' rights and the continued discrimination and barriers they face. On that day we will talk more about the world's girls and the importance of education in their lives.

For now, the 142 lives documented in Hopes and Dreams remind us that although we've got a ways to go, we're on the right track in keeping a sharp, and ever-sharpening, lens on the world's girls so that together we can change the picture for them and ultimately for all of us.