The Harper government has announced an additional $10 million in funding to combat the practice of child marriages in the developing world.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird made the announcement in Ottawa on Tuesday as part of the fourth-annual John Diefenbaker Award Ceremony — a ceremony to honour those who show “exceptional courage and leadership in defending human rights.”
This year’s award went to an international organization called Girls Not Brides.
"In all parts of the world, Girls Not Brides gives a voice to those who are silenced by child marriage. They do this by calling for new laws, sharing best practices and engaging with communities," Baird said, calling child marriage “one of the most pressing development challenges of our time.”
"Currently, 700 million girls and women alive today were married as children.This isn’t a cultural nuance or a women’s issue — the impact on health and freedom of so many young girls adds up to a human tragedy. Global efforts to reduce the practice are having an impact, but change has not been fast enough."
Girls Not Brides — whose leadership included Her Royal Highness Princess Mabel van Oranje of the Netherlands — claims that 15 million girls under the age of 18 are married every year.
"1 in 3 girls in the developing world are married by age 18, and 1 in 9 are married by age 15, some as young as eight or nine," they say on their website.
"Neither physically nor emotionally ready to become wives and mothers, these girls are at far greater risk of experiencing dangerous complications in pregnancy and childbirth, becoming infected with HIV/AIDS and suffering domestic violence. With little access to education and economic opportunities, they and their families are more likely to live in poverty."
The group claims that education and empowerment of young girls is important, but the solution requires a multifaceted approach.
"There is not one parent in the world, I think, who says…’I’m going to put my child into child marriage for the fun of it.’ No parents want the best thing for their best children," van Oranje said shortly after receiving the Diefenbaker award on Tuesday.
"But the reality is that because of poverty, because of security concerns, because of tradition, because of the unequal status of girls and women, parents — in too many places — still feel marrying [off their] daughter at a very young age is the best they can do for their daughter.”
Van Oranje also thanked Canada for being a world leader on this issue.
Canada, and Baird in particular, has played a significant role in driving international engagement in this issue at the United Nations, and earlier this year, Ottawa committed $20 million over two years to UNICEF to help end forced marriages in Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Yemen and Zambia.
Also an issue in Canada
While today’s funding announcement was focused on the international community, forced marriages of young people do occur in Canada.
A 2013 South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario report was able to identify 219 reported cases of forced marriage between 2010 and 2012,
The survey — of just Ontario — found that 81 per cent of the victims were between 16 and 34 years old and suggested that that number could be just the tip of the iceberg.