Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird says forced marriage is "unacceptable" and can be ended within a generation.

Speaking at a United Nations session called "Too Young to Wed," about child brides forced to marry, Baird said when he raised the issue at another international meeting, he was told to butt out.

"It's been felt that in some cultures, in some places, this was a social reality. And for the good of the conference, would I mind shutting up," he told the session on Wednesday afternoon in New York City.

Child brides are often forced to drop out of school after they are married, limiting their ability to earn an income if they have the chance to get a job.

There can be severe health implications for young girls in the developing world who get pregnant.

Statistics provided by Baird's office show girls under 15 years old are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s, and children born to mothers under 18 years old are 60 per cent more likely to die in their first year of life. Childbirth is the leading cause of death for girls 15 to 18 years old. Girls living in poverty are twice as likely to be married before they turn 18.

'Unacceptable to Canada'

Farwa Khalil, 12, talked about wanting to become an engineer and how a friend in her hometown in Pakistan was forced to marry a man in his 40s who won't let the girl go to school. Another friend, she said, was beaten when she gave birth because she had a girl instead of a boy.

Niger Hunger Brides

Zali Idy, 12, resident of a remote village in Niger in 2012, was married in 2011 to a 23-year-old man. UNICEF says one-third of girls in Niger marries before her 15th birthday. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird hosted a meeting Wednesday at the UN focusing on forced marriage. (Jerome Delay/Associated Press)

Baird said he wants to see the world harness the "powerful energy" devoted to the issue over the years so "we can realize better human rights, we can realize the full potential of the efforts at development."

"Let's put a focus on this issue, let's put some light in some darkness, and let's see some results," Baird said.

"In a generation, we can end this practice."

Baird said Canada isn't immune to the practice. He said there are 100 documented cases in Ontario in the past 12 months, where young girls have left Canada and been forced to marry.

"And let me tell you that this is unacceptable to Canada," he said.

Baird and Prime Minister Stephen Harper are in New York City for UN meetings on women and children. Baird will also make a speech to the UN General Assembly.

Harper on Wednesday morning listed nine more groups getting Canadian cash originally pledged during the Muskoka Initiative in 2010.

"These cover a range of issues in this particular area that will improve the health of mothers and children and will strengthen immunization efforts in developing countries," Harper said.

Muskoka funding still being assigned

The $203.55 million​ announced today is part of the $1.1 billion that Canada committed to the $7-billion Muskoka Initiative to improve maternal, newborn and child health in developing countries.​

At the time, Canada also announced it would maintain the ongoing spending of $1.75 billion in maternal, newborn and child health programming between 2010 and 2015, resulting in a total commitment of $2.85 billion over five years.

"Canada, with two-thirds of our commitment already distributed, will fulfill our Muskoka pledges by 2015, " Harper said.

Harper UN 20130925

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, centre, Melinda Gates and Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete discussed the major health challenges facing women and children around the world during a panel at the United Nations in New York City Wednesday. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The prime minister also announced Canada will be hosting an international meeting next year to ensure providers are accountable for the money they spend.

"It's also essential that we set up the systems that ensure accountability in terms of the delivery, and specifically essential that there be the proper allocation of resources to vital statistics so that these can be accurately registered, Harper said.

Margaret Chan, the director general of the World Health Organization who was also at the session, applauded Harper's efforts. 

"I commend you and thank you for your leadership," she said.​

Today's event was supported by the World Health Organization and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and organized in support of the United Nations secretary general’s Every Woman, Every Child Initiative.

'Not a real leader on women's health'

Hélène Laverdière, NDP critic for international development, said she was hoping to see more funding for the Global Fund to fight AIDS, TB and Tuberculosis, rather than more talk of money announced three years ago.
 
"Canada's Muskoka funding should have included funding for women to access sexual and reproductive health services, including emergency contraception and safe abortion. It is worth noting that at his panel, the prime minister was immediately followed by Melinda Gates, who stressed the importance of access to reproductive choice," Laverdière said in a statement to CBC News.
 
"Under Harper it’s clear that Canada is not a real leader on women's health and women's rights," she said.

The Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development announced earlier this week that the government is funding a website intended to help women connect and share best business practices, according to a news release.

The global Knowledge Gateway for Women’s Economic Empowerment "will support women’s economic opportunities and leadership and further their contributions to local economies," the release said.

The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) developed the site, empowerwomen.org. 

Global goals set for 2015

Harper and Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, the co-host of the maternal, child and newborn health panel, have worked together since 2010 on making international aid more accountable.

Harper took advantage of Canada hosting the 2010 G8 Muskoka Initiative meeting to steer leaders toward a focus on maternal, newborn and child health, pledging $1.1 billion for Canada until 2015. The UN has set 2015 as the deadline for hitting its Millenium Development Goals, a series of targets for reducing global poverty.

The MDGs include goals to reduce mortality for children under five by two-thirds between 1990 and 2015, to cut maternal deaths by 75 per cent over the same time period, and to achieve universal access to reproductive health care by 2015.

Wednesday's event is included in a nine-day series of events focused on women and children.

The short session is for leaders and government representatives of UN member states, as well as international aid organizations and the private sector, "to explore how to accelerate action in the next 825 days" before the MDG deadline, and to look at "the importance of women's and children's health in the post-2015 development agenda."

"High-level discussions will focus on key interventions and the importance of accountability, including civil registration and vital statistics, as we look to the long-term goal of improving women's and children's health," said a summary of the session available on a UN website.

The goal of Every Woman, Every Child is to save 16 million lives by 2015, according to a release from the Prime Minister's Office.

The world has made huge progress on the goals, said Shauna Kadyschuk, child health policy advisor for World Vision Canada.

In 1990, 12.4 million children died before they reached age five, according to numbers provided by UNICEF. By 2012, that was cut almost in half, at 6.6 million. 

Kadyschuk said World Vision wants the government to go further. Its goals were ambitious, she said, and helped spur the action the world took to save women and children. But, she said there are still millions of children dying needlessly.

"We're reaching the people who are within reach, but we need to be able to dig a little bit deeper and be able to reach those in conflicted and fragile states," Kadyschuk said.

With files from Susana Mas