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What Canada Can Do About Adolescent Pregnancy and Forced Marriages

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On October 30, UNFPA released its 2013 State of World Population Report on the theme of adolescent pregnancy globally. The report draws critical links between the issue of adolescent pregnancy, early and forced marriage, sexual violence and maternal mortality -- all priority development issues for the Canadian government.

These human rights violations can lead to adolescent pregnancy. Over 39,000 girls are married every day and 90 per cent of girls who give birth are in these marriages. The seven in 10 women who experience sexual violence and survive are twice as likely to experience unintended pregnancy. Adolescent pregnancy can also result in other human rights violations, such as the right to life. Over 70,000 adolescent girls still die every year from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, making it the leading cause of death among adolescents aged 15-19.

In addition to the 2010 Muskoka Initiative on maternal and child health, the Canadian government has recently pledged its support to address issues including child marriage and sexual violence in conflict and war. Despite the stark realities identified in the report and the government's commitments and pledges on these issues, the government's actual support for sexual and reproductive health programming overseas lags far behind. Even with the Muskoka commitment of $1.1 billion of new funding for maternal and child health over five years, the government's funding specifically for family planning, which is critical for preventing unwanted pregnancies, has in fact decreased since 2005 from $17.9 million to $6.8 million in fiscal year 2011-2012.

Numerous declarations of Parliamentarians from around the world have set a target for donor governments to allocate 10% per centof foreign aid to sexual and reproductive health. If we include the fact that Canada is well under the mark of contributing 0.7 per cent of GDP to development assistance in general, then we see that it would take a commitment the size of four new Muskoka initiatives devoted entirely to sexual and reproductive health for Canada to be fulfilling its fair share.

Statements on sexual violence and child marriage must come with a firm commitment to contribute to the well-being of survivors of these human rights violations. This includes helping to ensure their sexual and reproductive health needs are cared for.

Recognizing that many unwanted pregnancies occur as a result of sexual violence in conflict settings and among girls, the UN Secretary General himself has deemed access to sexual and reproductive health information and services as critically important.

To be effective and to uphold women's rights, Canadian funding for sexual and reproductive health must be comprehensive and must also include funding for safe abortion services. Twenty-four out of Canada's 33 priority countries for development permit abortion on grounds of women's mental health, rape or without restriction. Canada's unwritten "policy" to not fund abortion abroad, even in cases where women are legally permitted to access the services, not only contradicts the Canadian Health Act but also national laws in the majority of countries in which the Government supports development initiatives.

Despite UNFPA's recent report's findings that 3.2-million adolescents each year undergo an unsafe abortion, the Government has stated it has no intention of funding safe abortion services, even in cases of sexual violence as a result of war or for young women and girls in early and forced marriages. In direct opposition to this approach, the U.K. government has taken active steps towards the realization of women's and girls' rights through their commitment to fund safe abortion services abroad.

Moreover, the U.K. government has indicated its desire to engage in serious dialogue with donors that restrict the use of their funds for abortion, with the intention of ensuring that women can access the services they need.

Canada's claimed leadership on these issues rings hollow in contrast to the U.K.'s approach and to the recommendations of the UN Secretary-General. Without an ambitious and comprehensive strategy in place to respond to the needs of rape survivors and girls forced into marriage, the government will continue to deny them their human rights.

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