For one of her first outings in Canada, Meghan Markle chose to visit Justice for Girls, a nonprofit in Vancouver that promotes equality and health for teens living in poverty. The Duchess of Sussex, 38, traveled by seaplane from Vancouver Island to the organization’s headquarters in Vancouver for a meaningful discussion with the group of women on Jan. 14.
During the 90-minute visit, as they talked about everything from female leadership skills to the rights of indigenous women, Meghan “was listening intently,” Annabel Webb, the group’s co-founder, tells PEOPLE. Adds co-director Zoe Craig-Sparrow, “We all felt at ease, and I think that was a testament to the duchess. She said it was important for her to get to know the local context around the issues in the communities.”
Justice for Girls celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, and for the past two decades they’ve been advocating on behalf of local young women to end violence, poverty and racism through public education workshops, advocacy clinics and other local outreach initiatives.
“Part of what drove me to co-found the organization was just the extraordinary level of violence against teenage girls who are living in conditions of extreme poverty,” says Webb, 52. “That was a real driving force to try and create an organization that would deal with that head-on and from a feminist perspective.”
The organization is staffed with women who really understand the issues of inequality and violence that girls — including indigenous girls — are dealing with on the street.
“When we set up the organization, we made sure that it was with young women themselves who were saying, ‘These are the things that we need support on and these are the things that are keeping us down and have pushed us onto the streets or into prisons or into increasing conditions of poverty and violence,’ “ adds Webb.
Justice for Girls’ primary areas of action include criminal justice monitoring, advocacy and outreach for girls, education and promoting girls’ human rights.
“We are very committed to not just simply offering services to girls, but we are trying to change the social and economic inequalities that drive them into poverty and violence and criminalization and so on,” says Webb.
Craig-Sparrow, who first came into the organization as an intern when she was just 12 years old, has a particular interest in the link between children’s rights violations and environmental degradation and climate change.
“As an indigenous young woman myself, I have a plethora of personal reasons why these causes are so important to me,” says Craig-Sparrow, 22. “I also feel really privileged to be able to advocate on behalf of people who cannot.”
Says Webb, “A huge part of our work at Justice for Girls for over 20 years is really about teaching young women that they are entitled to more, that they have rights and that it’s our job to help them claim those rights.”
Advocating on behalf of young women is a cause close to Meghan’s heart, and she found camaraderie with the women that day. As they wrapped, the group gifted her with a gold-and-diamond whale tail pendant that had been donated by local jeweler Hollie Bartlett, a member of the Haisla tribe.
“She was very grateful,” says Webb. Adds Craig-Sparrow, “It’s a cornerstone of our indigenous culture to give a gift, so I explained that to the duchess as well. She was really gracious.”
As they look to the future, Justice for Girls hopes to expand their outreach efforts and move into a bigger center in Vancouver. This new hub would include all the services that young local women need — from medical services to wellness programs to education advocacy.
“We know from our 20 years of experience and extensive community consultations with girls that they need a place like this to succeed and keep them safe from poverty,” says Craig-Sparrow.