09/14/2012 07:08 EDT | Updated 11/14/2012 05:12 EST

Baird Promotes Record On Women's Rights Around World

Canada stands up for women and girls around the world, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Friday in a speech that outlined the battle against forced marriage but ignored the question of abortion funding in developing countries.

Baird's speech to the Montreal Council on Foreign Relations outlined the ways in which he says his government fights for the rights of women and girls, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper's decision to push to make maternal and child health a priority for the G8 countries in 2010. According to notes prepared for the speech, Baird pointed specifically to funding for "projects that make a real-life difference — from building better hospitals and training more medical staff, to targeting diseases long since eradicated in the developed world, to improving nutrition for mothers and their children."

Most of the speech was about the rights of women and girls, with part of it focused on child brides.

"In the two hours we will have spent here, 2,200 children will be forced into early marriage. Today, an estimated one in three girls in the developing world is married before the age of 18," Baird said.

"When girls as young as nine years old are forced to marry against their will, they have no fighting chance of obtaining an education. Without an education, these girls are ill-equipped to parent. As children, they are not ready to be parents themselves. Their bodies are not ready to birth children and, when they do, they often die in labour, have sickly, premature babies, and are more likely to get AIDS."

"Our government is standing up for these girls, even when it's not always expedient to do so," Baird's speaking notes say.

But the foreign affairs minister ignores the issue of abortion, which caused the government months of grief in 2010 when it wouldn't say whether the G8 funding it was planning to announce would include money to provide abortion services or counselling.

Government criticized in 2010

Then-international co-operation minister Bev Oda finally announced Canadian funding wouldn't include abortion services.

Critics of the policy not to provide abortion funding pointed to the fact that in some countries girls are forced into marriages against their will and that rape is used as a weapon of war. Either case can mean unwanted pregnancies.

Baird's speech talks about going to international meetings and taking a stand against child brides. Representatives from some countries, he relates, said he was culturally insensitive for raising the issue.

"Well, you know what? I am going to talk about it. I'm not going to stay quiet on an issue that is morally wrong and deserves to be condemned. How can anyone defend the practice of having a nine-year-old girl forced into marriage? If Canada won’t speak up for these girls, who will?" Baird said in the speech.

The government has committed nearly $3 billion over five years to health funding for women and children, he said, in addition to almost $14 million for programs to end sexual violence and encourage women's participation in emerging democracies.

NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar says a rape or forced marriage resulting in a pregnancy leaves girls and women in many developing countries with few options.

"For many girls and women in countries where this is an issue, it's not just about the arranged marriages, the forced marriages, but it's about the sexual violence within that," Dewar said.

"If women aren't able to have options for their reproductive health then they will continue to be victimized and be victims."

Sex is used as a weapon of war or a way to force them into marriage, Dewar said, "because once they have a child, because of culture and because of societal pressures, they are being left with very few options," he added.

International aid focused on 'tangible results'

A spokesman for Baird said the government's international development program is focused "on tangible results that provide the best use of Canada's aid dollars."

"Through the Muskoka Initiative we are focusing aid to 10 specific countries so that we can reduce maternal and infant mortality and improve the health of mothers and children in the world's poorest countries," Rick Roth said in an email.

Baird has made a point as foreign affairs minister of speaking out on human rights issues. He's already condemned human rights violations against gays and lesbians, including at a meeting of Commonwealth nations, a gathering where many of the countries have laws against gay sex.

Government officials, including the prime minister, have repeatedly and consistently said that they aren't going to reopen the abortion debate in Canada.

Last winter, Conservative MP Stephen Woodward tabled a motion calling for a special parliamentary committee to look at the definition in the Criminal Code of when life begins. Woodward has a press conference to discuss the motion on Monday. The second hour of debate for the private member's motion is next Friday, with a vote expected Sept. 26.

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