OTTAWA — A top United Nations official is praising the Harper government’s foreign policy initiative to end forced marriage of young girls, even if Canada won’t fund projects that would allow victims access to an abortion.
The Conservative government’s practice of not allowing aid dollars to go towards organizations that offer abortions to victimized girls or war-rape victims has sparked heated criticism in some quarters.
But a seasoned expert on international child protection said that doesn’t diminish Canada’s emerging international leadership on the issue because there are other ways for the government to make a difference in helping young girls.
“We’re … talking about everything but that, frankly,” Susan Bissell, associate director of the child protection branch of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said in an interview from New York.
She called abortion funding “an obstacle to negotiate around” and said she is urging Canada to be the international standard bearer for a worthy cause that needs a champion.
Bissell was in Ottawa earlier this month and met with policy makers in the offices of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.
She said she was struck by their deep understanding of the complexities of a problem that has health, justice and education components.
“Canada is the first government that I’ve talked to that sees those connections,” Bissell said.
She believes the recent merger of the old Canadian International Development Agency into Foreign Affairs will help strengthen Canada’s approach to the problem.
“Some have been despondent about the collapsing of CIDA into the ministry, but I actually see an incredible opportunity to link the dots.”
Ultimately, Bissell said she wants Canada to make a multi-million-dollar contribution to the fight against the exploitation of girls.
Bissell said that when Baird announced that Canada wanted to focus on the problem during a speech at the UN in September, her email in-box was flooded with positive messages.
The UN estimates there are 400 million women who were married as children in Latin America and the Caribbean, South Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. Child brides are subjected to a variety of abuses, but when they become pregnant as teenagers they and their babies face life-threatening health risks.
The UN cites complications from childbirth as the leading cause of death in girls aged 15 to 19 in poor countries.
In a year-end interview, Baird defended the government’s stance on not funding abortion projects.
“The reality is what this initiative is about is stopping this from happening in the first place. It’s like fire prevention,” Baird said.
“In your fire prevention budget, you don’t hire firefighters. You do prevention work.”
The minister had few specifics on what Canada would be doing to combat the child-bride problem, but said money for programs and advocacy would be likely features. “We’re just really starting from the ground on this,” Baird said.
“There’s room for government action but it will require societal change from the ground up. We’re just at a very, the early stages of this.”
Bissell, a Canadian who has worked abroad for a quarter century, said she wants the government to think big and build on the momentum that Baird has begun: “Not little baby projects, but big things that are going transform communities and societies from the inside out.”
She said UNICEF is well-positioned in several affected countries, and has learned a lot of lessons in the three decades it has fought to end the forced genital mutilation of young girls in some cultures.
“It’s not going to happen just with external political pressure,” she said.
“For us this is perceived as this horrific practice, when it’s this social norm. Families and communities do this because keeping their girls costs money and if everybody is marrying their girls at 13 then you have to do it too because yours will be the unmarried one at 18.”
Baird said the focus is part of a natural follow-up from Harper’s signature G8 initiative on child and maternal health. (The prime minister also made clear that of the $3 billion Canada was spending, none would go towards abortions).
“It’s a development challenge in addition to a human rights challenge,” said Baird.