Action Canada Statement before Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development

Posted on May, 11 2015 by Action Canada

Honourable Members,

I want to begin by thanking you for the invitation to present before you today.  For those of you who are not familiar with it, Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights is a Canadian organization working domestically and globally to advance sexual and reproductive health and rights.  While the Committee’s study covers a number of specific topics relating to children and youth, I will focus my remarks on the issue of early and forced marriage and how Canada can strengthen its role to address this issue.

Early and forced marriage is a pervasive human rights violation whose causes are deeply rooted in gender-based inequalities, norms and stereotypes, including traditional, patriarchal perceptions of women’s status and roles in society, as well as social control of women’s bodies and sexual choices.

Early and forced marriage constitutes one example of how these root causes are manifested in societies. Other examples include female genital mutilation (FGM) and acid attacks, as well as keeping or pulling girls out of school, which of course is often a precursor to their being forced into early marriage.  Problems associated with early and forced marriage, while based in inequalities relating to gender and age, are also exacerbated by other factors of inequality such as poverty, lower education level and rural location.

After marriage in these circumstances, all of these same inequalities and forms of control continue to manifest themselves in the lives of these girls and young women as a plethora of continued human rights violations.  First of all, married girls are twice as likely to experience sexual violence and often this sexual violence is perfectly legal.  According to UN Women, 127 countries do not explicitly criminalize rape in marriage.  And in fact, 53 of these countries actually explicitly permit marital rape.

Secondly, adolescent girls and young women often lack access to sexual and reproductive health information, commodities and services, including for contraception.  While part of this lack of access is certainly the lack of availability of these services, it is also partly based in legal requirements for spousal consent to these services, potential reproductive coercion by the spouse, and indications that services are not youth-friendly or not geared at meeting specific health needs in a non-judgmental manner.  Currently, over 220 million women and adolescent girls who are married or in a union and would like access to a modern method of contraception do not have such access.

Thirdly, if an adolescent girl experiences an unwanted pregnancy, she may lack access to safe abortion services and post-abortion care.  Factors impacting on access to abortion services include its legality in the country in which she lives, the availability of this service, and spousal consent requirements.  Fourthly, if giving birth she might lack access to personnel or facilities that would ensure safe delivery.  Primarily because of a lack of access to sexual and reproductive health services, including maternal health services, maternal mortality is the second leading cause of death of adolescent girls in the developing world.

This is just a small glimpse of what the picture for adolescent girls forced into early marriage looks like.  Addressing early and forced marriage requires addressing these interlinked human rights violations rooted in gender-based and other inequalities.

Given the Committee’s focus on what Canada’s role should be, I would like to offer a few thoughts on this.  First of all, in terms of Canada’s work at the intergovernmental level, I want to begin by commending the government’s leadership role in bringing this issue to the UN Human Rights Council and the General Assembly for action by these two bodies.  Within the intergovernmental sphere, we are currently in a place where, like FGM, governments are not particularly defending this practice even where this practice is widespread.  In this sort of situation, the intergovernmental system can be seized upon to make tremendous advances and in turn support and spur further action to address early and forced marriage at national levels.

Canada should work to ensure resolutions are substantive and strong, aimed at identifying what States need to do to eliminate these practices and to address the human rights of those subjected to the practice.  This necessarily entails comprehensive, integrated approaches, which include education, health and justice components.  For this upcoming June Human Rights Council resolution, we would urge the government to work to ensure that the Council commission a technical guidance on using human rights-based approaches in addressing the issue.  Such a policy tool could serve to assist governments in identifying key interventions needed in order to fully implement and give effect to the relevant human rights obligations and principles.

Added to this effort, the government should also step up its engagement in policy dialogue with other countries, both bilaterally and in its participation in the Universal Periodic Review process.  The aim should be not only to advance approaches to preventing early and forced marriage but also to challenge interlinked violations of the rights to education, health and bodily autonomy: That includes working with countries to reform laws, including setting a minimum age of marriage, criminalizing marital rape, and removing legal or policy barriers to health services, including spousal consent requirements and the criminalization of abortion.

With the post-2015 agenda soon poised to be adopted, we have now agreed, as part of this framework, on a robust gender equality goal.  Addressing child marriage is a part of that goal as are numerous interlinked issues.  The implementation of this goal, along with other aspects of this ambitious post-2015 agenda will need to be financed through a mix of domestic and international resources as well as new financing mechanisms.  Now even more so than with the Millennium Development Goals, donor countries must renew their commitment to ensuring that levels of overseas development are at or above 0.7% of GNI.

As part of its efforts to address early and forced marriage comprehensively, the government further needs to prioritize investment in sexual and reproductive health, including family planning.  In addition to supporting the fulfilment of these human rights, these are also smart investments.  At the present time, expenses related to unsafe abortion complications alone cost women, girls, and their families a further US$600 million per year in out-of-pocket expenses.  Conversely, meeting the unmet need for modern contraception and achieving universal access to sexual and reproductive health services by 2030 is estimated to yield impressive returns of US$120 for every dollar spent, and over US$400 billion in annual benefits.

As a final recommendation, the government must also look to invest further in women’s and youth-led organizations working towards gender equality.  Despite greater attention to gender equality, women’s organizations themselves are struggling globally.  Greater investment in those voices who are challenging the very gender norms and inequalities that are at the root of these interlinked human rights violations, including early and forced marriage, is a major need at this point.

Thanks for your attention and I look forward to your questions.