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Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird commits support to end child marriage

John Baird, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Canada, at 2014 Girl Summit in London. | Photo credit: Jessica Lea | DFID

On 14 September 2012, the Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird addressed the Montreal Council on Foreign Relations. In his speech he outlined the Canadian government’s commitment to promoting women and girls rights, and above all to ending child marriage.

Below is an except of Minister Baird’s speech, a full transcript is available on the Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada website.

“One of the key premises of our values-based foreign policy is this: if we want to promote prosperity, if we want to promote fundamental freedoms, and, increasingly, if we want to cut off radical extremism at the knees, we must actively support and promote not just the equality of men and women, but the full participation of women in all parts of civil society.

This is not just about equality; it’s about the full participation of women in society. When women play an active role in society, so many other problems are resolved and the things we hope to achieve become possible: global security, access to education, and improved child and maternal health.

The first is the struggle to end the practice of early-enforced marriage

Every year, millions of girls are forced into marriage, some as young as 9 years old. In the two hours we will have spent here, 2,200 children will be forced into early marriage. Today, an estimated one in three girls in the developing world is married before the age of 18.

Girls like Habiba, a child bride in Niger who was forced into marriage at 14 years of age. At 15, she became pregnant, having to labour for two days before being transferred to a regional hospital to receive a Caesarean. Sadly, she lost her baby hours after he was born, when a simple procedure could have saved his life.Her husband left her, and her village rejected her. Today she lives with her mother. Completely ostracized, she no longer leaves her home—not even to get water.

For girls like Habiba, the journey from girlhood to womanhood is too fast and too brutal. No girl deserves to have her childhood robbed from her. When girls as young as nine years old are forced to marry against their will, they have no fighting chance of obtaining an education. Without an education, these girls are ill-equipped to parent. As children, they are not ready to be parents themselves. Their bodies are not ready to birth children and, when they do, they often die in labour, have sickly, premature babies, and are more likely to get AIDS. It’s a vicious cycle that repeats and repeats and repeats as long as we don’t end it.

Our government is standing up for these girls, even when it’s not always expedient to do so. We don’t shy away from such tough conversations.

At a recent international meeting, I fought to have the issue of early-enforced marriage debated, and insisted that we demonstrate real change to end this archaic practice. When we were negotiating the text for the communiqué, one section condemned early-enforced marriage. I was shocked when some countries at the table told me I was culturally insensitive for raising this.

Well, you know what? I am going to talk about it. I’m not going to stay quiet on an issue that is morally wrong and deserves to be condemned. How can anyone defend the practice of having a nine-year-old girl forced into marriage? If Canada won’t speak up for these girls, who will?

I recognize that it’s not a problem that developed overnight; this is ages old, and it won’t be solved overnight. But it’s time for the global community to demonstrate a real commitment to change, not just in words, but also in action. That’s why Canada will continue to speak up and work with others to end this practice.

We are putting our voice and weight behind initiatives adopted by organizations like Girls Not Brides. I am pleased to say, as I’m here with you here today, that Canada, through our mission in Geneva, is co-hosting an international event in Geneva to raise awareness of this important issue.

This builds on important work we have been doing at the UN Human Rights Council on this issue. And work being done by my colleague Rona Ambrose—whose dedication to the issues facing women and girls around the world has led Canada to spearhead the International Day of the Girl. We will intensify our diplomacy and development work to end early-enforced marriage in every corner of the world.”