02/08/2014 11:45 EST | Updated 04/10/2014 05:59 EDT

Canada Must Act to Stop Child Marriages Now

Last fall, the federal government condemned the practice in certain countries of forcing young girls into marriage, long before they are mentally, physically and emotionally prepared to carry a child.

The countries with the highest rate of child marriage are in Africa, including the Central African Republic, Chad, and Niger, and in South Asia, Bangladesh.

Internationally, more than 140-million girls under 18 years of age will become child brides between 2011 and 2020; and of these, 50 million will be under the age of 15. Each day, 39,000 girls will marry too young, such as the 14-year-old who was "married off" to an abusive man in his seventies and had five children by him by her early twenties.

A girl should have the right to choose whom she marries and when she marries. No girl should be robbed of her childhood.

The problem of early and forced marriages is compounded by the risks to the health, often to the very life, of the girl-child mother and her baby. In fact, the complications of pregnancy and childbirth complications are the leading cause of death in young women aged 15 to 19 years.

Of the 16-million adolescent girls who give birth every year, UNICEF estimates that 50,000 die in childbirth, mostly in low- and middle-income countries. Moreover, still births and newborn deaths are 50 per cent higher among mothers under the age of 20 years than in women who become pregnant in their twenties.

If child marriage is not properly addressed, the United Nations Millennium Development Goals calling for a three-quarters reduction in maternal mortality and a two-thirds reduction in child deaths will not be met by 2015, or far beyond.

Canadians should know that early and forced marriage is not just an issue of developing countries. For example, recently there were 100 documented cases in Ontario, involving young girls who left Canada and were forced to marry.

We need real action, an area where this government often stumbles badly. As in many other issues, the government is strong on rhetoric but weak on follow-through. Canadians should therefore demand to know how Canada will work actively and constructively to help end early and forced marriages.

Perhaps the government should start with a discussion within the Standing Committees of Foreign Affairs and International Development and the Status of Women, but much more is needed.

Social change is slow and complex to affect, and it will require the government putting aside its ideology and mobilizing partnerships with the United Nations, non-governmental organizations, and women's groups. The government should take a leadership position, back up its words with investment, and make an aid commitment for years to come.

Complementary investments in girls' education, working with local parliamentarians and religious leaders, enforcement of legislation, and exposing and reforming societal practices that are harmful to women and girls will also be needed for success.

Canadians should understand that standing up against child marriage is not a new issue. UN agencies such as UNICEF have been raising this issue for decades, as have many European donors. But still, better late than never.

Indeed, these words are reflective of Canada's earlier support for such initiatives as the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Beijing Platform for Action.

Nevertheless, opposing child-marriage is an important issue, and the domestic and foreign announcements merit support.

Canadians should also understand that our country's leadership in international development has dramatically diminished under the Harper Conservatives.

To be fair, the government did commit $1.1 billion in new funding (or in reality, reallocated aid dollars, since overall, there have been cuts and lapses) to improve maternal, newborn and child health (MNCH) in developing countries.

However, Canada's tough line of not allowing aid dollars to fund organizations that offer comprehensive medical services to victimized girls or war-rape victims undermines the credibility of its push on MNCH. Canada's stance has been widely criticized, both at home and internationally.

Having made the speeches, the government must be ready to take real action and make a long-term commitment to protect these children.

Young girls around the world do not have the luxury of time. We need to act decisively together, at home and abroad.

What meaningful action plan can we expect from Mr. Harper by International Women's Day or at his rumoured Maternal and Child Health Summit?


Child Brides