Address by Minister Baird on Child, Early and Forced Marriage

September 25, 2013 - New York City, New York

Check Against Delivery

Why is the Issue of Child Marriage an Important Foreign Policy Concern?

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, mesdames et messieurs, I would like to begin by thanking Dr. Gayle for moderating the panel today, Farwa for sharing her moving story, and my fellow co-hosts for their support in organizing this event.

The great poet Khalil Gibran inspired us to remember that “safeguarding the rights of others is the most noble and beautiful end of a human being.”

This is not simply a question of beliefs and values. It is a requirement for action.

Protecting human rights and human dignity is an obligation that each state owes its citizens and a mutual obligation of all members of the international community.

Every year, millions of girls are forced into marriage, some as young as 8 years old. In the time we will spend here, over 1,500 children will be forced into early marriage.

Child, early and forced marriage puts the lives of young girls at risk. Complications from pregnancy and giving birth at a young age can result in severe maternal disability or even death. Complications in childbirth are the leading cause of death amongst girls between the ages of 15 and 19 in the developing world. These girls are children; they quite simply are not ready to be parents.

Support for girls and their rights is key to building healthy and robust communities. Empowering girls to reach their full potential will strengthen families, communities and nations. Unfortunately, despite the progress made in advancing their protection and well-being, girls around the world continue to be denied access to quality education and health care, and are more likely to experience malnutrition and violence—including early and forced marriage.

This is not only an issue of human rights, but also a question of peace, security and development. Early and forced marriage can strip young girls of their education, and without the fundamental basics of an education, prosperity and opportunities diminish. The statistics all tell us the same thing: the longer a girl stays in school, the later the age she will marry, the fewer children, the lower the infant mortality rate, and the greater her potential. Women and girls are essential to a strong, peaceful and developed society.

Education is essential on many fronts. Girls must be empowered to have a voice in the decisions that affect their lives.

Canada places a high priority on the full participation of women and girls in all aspects of society. So many problems are resolved when women participate actively in society, and what we hope to achieve becomes possible: access to education and improved child and maternal health care. What is good for women and girls is good for us all.

Our government is standing up for these girls, even when it’s not always popular or expedient to do so. And in doing so, we have made ending the practice of child, early and forced marriage a foreign policy priority.

We don’t shy away from tough conversations. And in these conversations, I have been shocked when other countries have called me culturally insensitive for raising this.

But 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 girls as young as 8 years old forced into marriage against their will?

I recognize that child, early and forced marriage is not a problem that developed overnight; this is ages old, and it won’t be solved today or tomorrow.

But all of us, working toward this goal, can make a difference in time.

Canada is committed to taking a leadership role on this issue, and we will continue to work with any and all partners around the world to find a way to end this practice. 

What role can Canada and the international community play in tackling the issue of child marriage?

As citizens of a global community, we have a solemn duty to defend the vulnerable, to give voice to the voiceless, to challenge the aggressor and to promote and protect human rights and human dignity at home and abroad.

To ensure an end to this practice, Canada is working with the international community on this issue at all levels—from our leadership at the United Nations on a brand new resolution highlighting this issue to partnerships with national governments through to concrete assistance to local organizations working to end child, early and forced marriage.

Canada has led several successful events on child, early and forced marriage.

Canada led the international initiative to establish the International Day of the Girl Child in 2011. Last year was the first International Day of the Girl Child, and the momentum gained from highlighting the theme of child marriage has increased awareness of this issue and strengthened the movement to bring an end to this practice—momentum that we see continuing today.

In March 2013, Canada co-sponsored side events on the margins of the Commission on the Status of Women in New York, and in Geneva during the 23rd Session of the Human Rights Council. In May 2013, Canada hosted the United Nations Population Fund’s [UNFPA’s] Too Young to Wed photo exhibit in Ottawa. The extraordinary images you have seen projected in this room come from that exhibit.

Canada has actively worked to promote language on child, early and forced marriage at the G-8 and in UN resolutions, including in the UN General Assembly violence against women resolution.

More recently, Canada has played an active role in working with a core group of countries to develop a procedural resolution addressing child, early and forced marriage at the 24th session of the Human Rights Council, currently under way in Geneva. The resolution is significant in that it calls for the establishment of a panel discussion and subsequent report by the Office of the High Commissioner [for Human Rights] on preventing and eliminating child, early and forced marriage, with a particular focus on challenges, achievements, best practices and implementation gaps.

Canada is also leading the first stand-alone resolution on child, early and forced marriage at the UN General Assembly this year. This resolution will serve to bring well-deserved attention to the issue, and to set the stage for a substantive resolution on child, early and forced marriage in the future. We hope we can count on your support for this resolution, as well as for future initiatives to combat child, early and forced marriage.

Canada has provided funding to country-specific projects targeting child, early and forced marriage, and girls’ rights in general, for example through the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives, the Global Peace and Security Fund, and through our development assistance program.

For instance, in Bangladesh, Canada helped 85 health facilities provide adolescent-friendly reproductive-health counselling services to more than 70,000 young men and women, as well as their parents, helping to reduce practices such as child, early and forced marriage.

Canada also partners with key UN agencies such as UNFPA and UNICEF, and with prominent civil society organizations that work to prevent and address child, early and forced marriage.

For example, in 2013, Canada provided over $16 million in institutional support to UNFPA. This funding helps to support UNFPA’s mandate, including its work on preventing and addressing child, early and forced marriage. Also in 2013, Canada provided $17 million in long-term institutional support to UNICEF. This funding helps to support UNICEF’s mandate, including its work with communities to raise the age of marriage and address gender discrimination.

Canada continues to develop and strengthen its capacity to assist Canadians who are at risk of or who have been forced into marriage abroad. This includes increased training for consular and front-line staff abroad, ongoing development of consular policy and working with Canadian community resources and organizations that are able to assist victims upon their return to Canada.

Further underpinning our efforts to eliminate child, early and forced marriage are Canada’s broader investments globally in better access to education and strengthened maternal and child health.

In 2012-13, under the leadership of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Canada contributed $259.2 million on education in developing countries, of which $199.4 million was for basic education. As well, Canada is leading a global effort—the Muskoka Initiative—to mobilize global action to reduce maternal and infant mortality and improve the health of mothers and children in the world’s poorest countries. Canada’s contribution in this sector, through ongoing and new funding through 2015, totals $2.85 billion.

In closing, I would like to thank you for attending today’s panel event and for supporting efforts to end the practice of child, early and forced marriage and to promote equal treatment and opportunities for girls around the world.

Few people can change the course of history, but each of us, working toward furthering human dignity, respect and tolerance, will be able to write the history of our generation and build a foundation for the world we leave behind.

We can advance only if we work together on this issue. Everyone has a role to play, from members of civil society, governments, parliaments and the United Nations to leaders of faith-based and community organizations.

I look forward to working with you to eradicate child, early and forced marriage.

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