OTTAWA - Grim human rights reports on forced child marriages in Tanzania are making the government take a hard look at Prime Minister Stephen Harper's top African partner in his signature aid initiative.
The most recent report by New York-based Human Rights Watch interviewed 135 girls and women across Tanzania and concluded that the practice of forced marriage — involving girls as young as seven in some cases — was causing serious harm because of gaps in the country's child protection system.
The report, released with little fanfare last month, urged the Tanzanian government to raise the minimum age for marriage to 18 as a first step towards eradicating the abuse of young people.
The report has implications for Ottawa because Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete and Harper have been the co-chairs of the United Nations Commission on Information and Accountability for Women's and Children's Health since 2010.
Harper has lauded Kikwete as one of his key partners in his flagship aid priority: the Maternal Newborn Child Health initiative, to which he has pledged $3.5 billion to 2020 in order to reduce the deaths of pregnant women, new mothers and young children in the developing world.
Harper allowed Kikwete to share top billing at a major conference in Toronto this past spring, with the billionaire philanthropist Melinda Gates, Queen Raina of Jordan, the Aga Khan, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the leaders of several international agencies such as the World Health Organization and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).
Behind the scenes, however, Canada is pushing Tanzania to clean up its act when it comes to the treatment of young people.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has launched his own UN campaign to end the early and forced marriage of children.
"The stories depicted by Human Rights Watch in their report are unfortunately stories that are happening around the world," said Baird's spokesman Adam Hodge.
"We are eager to see Tanzania implement a comprehensive legal and policy framework to end practices which are discriminatory and lead to violence against women and girls. Canada will continue to work closely with Tanzania and around the world to put an end to child and early forced marriage."
UNICEF Canada President David Morley said it is a good idea for the Harper government to use "backroom diplomacy" with the Kikwete government to push for change because a "naming and shaming" approach won't work.
"It doesn't mean that you don't try and do stuff, but this calling-out is counterproductive. We don't want that. What we want is to figure out the ways to make things better for these girls," Morley said in an interview.
"I've seen it on other social issues, particularly around HIV, and you get a reaction that it's foreign interference."
The Human Rights Watch report found that child marriage cuts girls' access to education while exposing them to reproductive health risks, as well as to widespread exploitation and violence. The report also singled out rape and the practice of female genital mutilation.
The report said the rate of child marriage is falling in Tanzania, but still remains unacceptably high. It cited government statistics that said two of five Tanzanian females are married before their 18th birthday.
Hodge noted that Canada used the UN's most recent Universal Periodic Review of Tanzania's human rights record in 2011 to raise concerns about laws that were failing to protect women from domestic violence, marital rape, sexual abuse and female genital mutilation.
Questions publicly tabled by Canada with the UN panel show that to be the case.
Human Rights Watch said that the Tanzanian parliament missed an opportunity to fix the problem as it works to create a new constitution for the country. The final draft of the new constitution, tabled last month, failed to include a uniform minimum marriage age.
The report said that "discriminatory and vague education policies" pave the way for child marriages and undermine the ability of girls to get an education.
This includes mandatory pregnancy testing in schools that can lead to the expulsion of students for committing crimes "against morality," the report said.
Some of the girls interviewed reported being raped by their older husbands and being physically abused by their in-laws.
In the report, teenaged girls describe a variety of degradations, including being sold into forced marriages for less than $50 by their own fathers and at least one account that involved a sexual assault with burning charcoal.
When one 16-year-old girl tried to rebel against her abusive husband, she told researchers that she was told: "I bought you. Your father has taken my wealth so I own you. Do you think you can go anywhere?"
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