Why Canada is Speaking Up for Girls
The original version of this op-ed was published in the Toronto Star on July 4, 2014.
By John Baird
In Canada, we have the freedom to choose if, when and whom to marry. This freedom is rarer than you might think. Three years ago, shortly after I was appointed Canada’s Foreign Minister, I took part in a meeting of Commonwealth countries. In the draft communiqué there was a brief mention of early and forced marriage. This didn’t seem notable to me at the time. I assumed that forcing any young girl into a marriage against her will was something most nations would welcome condemnation of. But as I spoke to condemn this horrible practice, I realized how wrong that assumption sadly was. Some in the room accused me of being culturally insensitive.
After that meeting, I learned that a staggering 14 million girls are forced into marriage around the world every year. That means another 39,000 today. The extent and scale of the problem is heart-breaking. The damaging effects of child, early and forced marriage are well documented. For example, complications related to pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death for girls in the developing world between the ages of 15 and 19—and 90 percent of these girls are married.
As well as damaging health, it halts education, enslaves young women in a life of poverty; and limits the development of entire communities. I have met girls who are victims of child, early and forced marriage. Their stories are heart-wrenching and their courage is inspiring. I believe that Canada has a responsibility to speak up for these girls—for their rights and for their futures.
Over the last two years, international momentum has been building to do just that, and I am proud that Canada has played a leadership role in this movement. For example, we spearheaded the establishment of the International Day of the Girl Child in 2011, which focused on child, early and forced marriage in its first year. We also played an active role in bringing forward the first-ever stand-alone resolution on child, early and forced marriage at the Human Rights Council. And we co-led, with Zambia, the first resolution on this issue at the United Nations General Assembly in the fall of 2013, both of which were adopted by consensus.
Canada has also taken action to directly tackle the problem in countries where it is most prevalent, including through new investments announced last fall.
In Afghanistan, we have built links between human rights principles in Afghan, Islamic and international law by emphasizing women’s rights as a fundamental Islamic principle.
In Ethiopia, 27 percent of women are married, widowed or divorced between the ages of 15 to 19—despite a law criminalizing child, early and forced marriage. In response to this, Canada helped community leaders develop action plans to improve schooling for young girls.
In Ghana, where early and forced marriage rates are alarmingly high, Canada has supported civil society groups who seek to foster dialogue with lawmakers and promote stronger enforcement of existing laws.
In Somalia and Zimbabwe, we have worked to improve education for young girls, while helping to protect those who have suffered from abuse, including rape and child, early and forced marriage.
In April, I announced that over the next two years, Canada will reallocate funds from our voluntary contribution to the Commonwealth to support initiatives that espouse Commonwealth values. A large portion of these funds will be used to combat the practice of child, early and forced marriage.
So I believe we have achieved a lot in a short space of time, but the scale of the challenge means we must keep up this momentum. That’s why I will announce a further boost to these efforts in Montréal today.
There’s a common thread in much of Canada’s foreign and development policy. You can see it reflected in the forward strategy that emerged at the successful Saving Every Woman Every Child: Within Arm’s Reach Summit hosted by the Prime Minister in Toronto recently. And you can see it in our diplomatic and financial support for women’s engagement in elections and civic society from Libya to Afghanistan.
We believe the protection and empowerment of women in society is the root of peaceful, prosperous and stable countries. Together with like-minded partners, Canada will continue to unabashedly champion the rights of, and opportunities for, girls and women around the world. After all—if we don’t speak up for them, who will?
Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister
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