11/18/2014 01:07 EST | Updated 01/18/2015 05:59 EST

Child marriage fight needs more funding, aid groups say

Canada's Conservative government has made it a priority to work to end child marriages around the world, citing the risks to girls' health, but is underfunding contraception through its signature maternal, newborn and child health program.

The contradiction appeared more pointed Tuesday as Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird issued a press release announcing a visit by a delegation from the organization Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage, led by Her Royal Highness Princess Mabel van Oranje.

Baird has made ending child marriage a key issue since he became foreign affairs minister and has chided countries around the world for allowing it to continue.

Van Oranje appeared before the House foreign affairs committee Tuesday morning just before the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) launched its State of the World Population annual report, which has a focus on adolescents and youth.

The statistics laid out by van Oranje and other witnesses are striking:

- In 2010, 13.5 million girls were married before they turn 18. That's projected to increase to 15.4 million a year by 2030.

- In the developing world, one in nine girls is married before her 15th birthday.

- Two million girls under 15 give birth each year, with about 90 per cent of these pregnancies coming out of early marriages. 

- Girls who give birth before their 15th birthday are five times as likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s.

- Children born to mothers under 20 are 50 per cent more likely to die in their first weeks of life.

But Canada's funding for contraception is falling far short of its target under the Muskoka Initiative, said Sandeep Prasad, who heads the organization that hosted the Canadian launch of the UNFPA report.

More money needed

"The government's figures show that less than 1.3 per cent of this funding was spent on family planning overseas," said Prasad, the executive director of Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights.

"Moreover, the government's overall funding for sexual and reproductive health overseas remains at about four per cent of its overall international assistance, far less than the agreed target of 10 per cent."

The Muskoka Initiative came out of the 2010 G20 meeting at which Prime Minister Stephen Harper made maternal, newborn and child health a priority, soliciting funding from world leaders to try to reach the Millennium Development Goals set in 2000 by the UN.

That funding matters, Prasad said, when faced with 2,400 young people contracting HIV every day and only one quarter of young women in developing countries knowing how to prevent HIV transmission. 

Officials from Plan International Canada, Save the Children Canada and Care Canada told MPs Tuesday morning that they need long-term funding for programs to work with communities to end child marriage.

Jacquelyn Wright, vice-president of international programs at Care Canada, said the practice is too ingrained in some developing countries to end quickly.

Baird is holding a press conference with Girls Not Brides at 4 p.m. ET Tuesday.