Ottawa urged to broaden focus beyond child marriages to sexual health

The federal government is pressing to end child marriage in Canada and around the world but appears to be falling short of an international target for funding reproductive and sexual health services.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird announced $10-million for organizations working against early and forced marriage in low-income countries, calling the issue “one of the most pressing development challenges of our time.” He made the announcement Tuesday afternoon as he presented the John Diefenbaker Defender of Human Rights and Freedom Award to representatives from an organization called Girls Not Brides.

Dutch Princess Mabel van Oranje, chair of Girls Not Brides, said Canada has become a “global leader” in opposing child marriage. In an interview with The Globe and Mail on Tuesday, she pointed out that Canada and Zambia championed a UN resolution calling for greater efforts to end the practice, which is expected to go to a vote later this week.

The latest efforts come after Ottawa introduced legislation this month targeting early, forced and polygamous marriages in Canada’s immigration system.

Sandeep Prasad, executive director of a group called Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, said Canada’s effort to stem the global problem of early and child marriage is valuable. But he said the government should not neglect the important role of family-planning and sexual-health education in addressing the early-marriage issue.

A recent analysis of Canadian spending showed about 4 per cent of Canada’s development assistance goes toward reproductive and sexual health, Mr. Prasad said, well below a long-standing target of 10 per cent that parliamentarians from around the world agreed upon during international conferences on population and development.

“In terms of actually addressing the full spectrum of what girls in these marriages might require in their lives, we need to look much more widely, and you do need to look at sexual and reproductive health,” Mr. Prasad said.

Only one in four women between the ages of 15 and 24 use modern contraception, according to Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights.

Asked about funding levels for reproductive health services on Tuesday, Mr. Baird said there is always pressure from advocacy groups to spend more on different causes and tackling the practice of early marriage itself could deal with the root of the issue.

“Preventing girls as young as nine years old from being married can avoid so many of these big problems,” Mr. Baird said. “So this is almost, if I could use an analogy, almost like fire prevention.”

Dianne Stewart, a representative from the United Nations Population Fund, did not comment directly on Canada’s spending levels. But she said reproductive health should generally be viewed as a central component of efforts to address early and child marriage.

“The immediate consequence of early and forced marriage is that young girls are having to give birth way before their bodies are ready,” Ms. Stewart said. “So the consequences are dire. And not having access to sexual and reproductive health services, and to contraception, condemns [the girls] to mortality and morbidity that they shouldn’t have to deal with at such a young age.”

Speaking with The Globe on Tuesday, Princess Mabel said she, too, views reproductive services and education as important elements in improving the health and futures of young girls around the world.

She spoke about visiting Zambia recently and meeting girls who had become pregnant without understanding how it had happened or what they could have done to prevent the pregnancy. “I mean, their futures in a way are wasted just because we fail to educate them,” she said.

Source: Globe and Mail

Posted on 2014-11-18
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