10/18/2013 08:03 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Put Rural Girls on the Social Map in Canada

Adapt or leave: the stakes of fitting in are high if you're a girl in rural Canada. With urbanization rates continuing to rise, the need to create thriving rural communities in Canada has never been greater. Rural girls need reasons to stay -- they need to be put on the map in Canada. But according to newly released research on rural girls' and young women's issues in Canada, being a rural girl often means facing challenges that are off the radar for those living in cities.

It can mean having few female role models to inspire your career dreams. It can mean increased social pressures like staying quiet if someone makes a racial slur about your best friend (likely one of very few people of colour in your community), not seeking help for depression because news spreads fast in a rural community, or not telling anyone that you've been raped because of what it might do to your reputation.

Growing up rural can also have many benefits for girls, like tight knit communities, extended families, the chance to learn hands-on skills, a less stressful lifestyle and opportunities to make deep connections with people and the land. These are good reasons to stay. In fact, one in five Canadian women live in rural areas, although these numbers are a far cry from a century ago, when Canada's identity was founded and synonymous with rural living.

Fast forward to the present: living in one of Canada's geographically isolated communities means fewer services that are harder to access. Think lack of transportation from one location to another, or having access to only one nurse and one social worker for an entire community.

Lack of services has an especially huge impact on girls. According to Justice Canada, violence is one of the biggest issues for girls and young women in rural settings. Because of their isolated or remote locations, girls often lack access to rides, rely on hitch hiking as a means of transportation, or stay out all night -- all of which puts them at risk. If violence occurs, by peers or in the family setting, girls rarely have access to a shelter and too often face shaming and community silence.

It's no wonder that health is a concern for rural girls. According to Statistics Canada and the Canadian Institute for Health Information, rural and northern girls are more likely to smoke and drink, have higher rates of suicide, and have poorer mental health made worse by the remoteness of their location. These factors could explain why the mortality rate for rural girls is double the rate for those in urban areas.

The issues are so intertwined, it's hard to untangle cause and effect. Bottom line, each circumstance influences the other. We have to pay attention. We need to know more.

With such overwhelming challenges, it's no wonder youth are deciding or feel forced to leave rural areas.

At the same time, newly gathered research and case studies show that many rural girls are transforming challenges into creative opportunities.

In fact, gender-specific programs are supporting the development of rural girls' and young women's empowerment, well-being and leadership.

Take Girls Night Out, a volunteer-led initiative in Faro, Yukon, a remote community of 400 people. Every single girl in town takes part in the weekly program where they meet role models, do cultural activities, and talk about important subjects like sexual health. Girls are building a network of support that boosts their self-confidence, healthy choices and leadership skills.

Programs like these are making a difference but are they enough?

Canada's rural communities are worth sustaining and young people are essential for the future. Rural culture has a lot of benefits for girls growing up, as well as pitfalls. In order to create a better future for girls, we must provide them with specific support and resources as well as invest in the well-being of rural communities as a whole.

Ultimately, girl-specific programs support girls to imagine choices beyond conforming to rigid social norms at home or leaving to go to the city; choices that include playing an active role in building healthy rural communities.

How well or not rural girls are thriving is a barometer for the rest of us. It's time to put rural girls on the social map in Canada.

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