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 accused of 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 Dutch 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.

Later Tuesday, Baird announced $10 million for programs to work to end child marriage.

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 turned 18. That's projected to increase to 15.4 million a year by 2030.
  • 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.

Afghanistan Women On The Inside

A female prisoner holds her child inside Afghanistan's central women's prison, in Kabul on March 28, 2013. A total of 202 women live in the jail, the majority serving sentences of up to seven years for leaving their husbands or refusing to accept an arranged marriage. (Anja Niedringhaus/Associated Press)

"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.

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.

Money for educating communities, creating jobs for girls and providing health care are all important, the committee heard. Girls need to be educated so they can negotiate with their parents about delaying marriage, parents need to be educated about the downside of early marriage and boys need to be educated to prevent domestic assault. And once girls are married, there have to be programs to bring them back to school because going to school helps them work to delay pregnancy once they're married.

Maternal health care is needed to teach communities that women, especially girls, need medical care when they're pregnant and in labour.

All of the experts who appeared before the foreign affairs committee said that ending child marriage would go a long way towards reaching the Millennium Development Goals, which were set in 2000 with an end date of 2015. Six of the current eight goals are linked to child marriage, van Oranje said.

They also asked the committee to advocate to include ending child marriage in the post-2015 goals, which are being discussed now at the UN.

Van Oranje said aside from child marriage being a major human rights abuse, "it also undermines our efforts to end global poverty."

Sensitive topic

Conservative MP Gary Schellenberger broached a sensitive topic after hearing testimony about how parents sometimes marry off their daughters young to prevent sexual harassment or to avoid the possibility of shame from an unplanned pregnancy.

"If our daughters or granddaughters were raped or abused, we would take them in our arms and we would coddle them, and we'd give them love and support. You have said in most countries, these girls would be banned from the family. Is this a religious trait or tradition?" Schellenberger asked the panel of aid organizations.

Plan International Canada's Rosemary McCarney said it's not a reaction unique to any society or religion.

"I would argue that we don't do so well with our own girls either," she responded, with Wright and Save the Children Canada's Cicely McWilliam voicing their agreement.

"As we've certainly known much more clearly over the last few weeks, girls and women hesitate to report for exactly the reason that they will be stigmatized or rejected or questioned in terms of the veracity. So this is universal and pervasive. And we know that in Canada, one in four girls report to us that they're sexually assaulted before the age of 16, and 15 per cent of boys," McCarney said.

"What's fundamentally important is for us to create safe individuals and safe institutions where children can feel they can come forward and if that doesn't work at the family level, can it work at the health clinic level or can it work at the school level ... It's an issue that we need to get on top of as a planet and get ahead of the kind of almost habituation or normalcy of gender-based violence."