07/20/2015 02:30 EDT | Updated 07/20/2016 05:59 EDT

Canada gives $20M to UN to fight child marriage

Canada will give $20 million to the United Nations Population Fund for a program aimed at ending child, early and forced marriages, Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson said on Monday.

Nicholson and Kitchener-Waterloo MP Peter Braid made the announcement at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont.

"Ending child, early and forced marriage will also improve maternal, newborn and child health, Canada's top development priority," said Nicholson. 

With the funding, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) will start a new two-year program in Guatemala, Haiti, India, Niger, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone to help teenage girls get better access to education, health care and life skills training.

Monday's funding announcement is the latest round of measures by the government to fight early, child and forced marriages (ECFM). On July 8, Nicholson announced $10 million in funding for worldwide efforts, including programs to promote schooling and skills training for girls and women in Commonwealth countries, as well as support for local community groups, NGOS and governments around the world.

However, when asked if any of the latest round of funding would include support for sexual education and access to birth control, Nicholson emphasized that the focus is on ending child marriage. 

"The focus as you can see is directed towards marriages, stopping forced marriages. That's what the priority is and will continue to be," said Nicholson.

The Conservative government has been criticized for underfunding contraceptive programs, because only about 1.4 per cent of Canada's funding for maternal health, newborn and child health under the Muskoka Initiative has gone to contraception. The Muskoka Initiative grew out of the G20 meeting in Muskoka in 2010 when Prime Minister Stephen Harper made maternal health a priority.

"This is not a health services announcement today, this is directed against the practice of forcing girls into early marriages and it's consistent with what we are doing and certainly within the Commonwealth and this is an extension of that," said Nicholson. 

"It's focused on making sure that we do everything possible, to make sure young girls don't get forced into marriage because we know of all the consequences."