Standing Up Versus Marching Forward: Efforts to End Early and Forced (Child) Marriage

 Together with like-minded partners, Canada will continue to unabashedly champion the rights of, and opportunities for, girls and women around the world. After all—if we don’t speak up for them, who will?

John Baird, July 2014

Canada’s claims to be a leader in stopping child, early and forced marriage emerged in October 2013 when Minister Baird remarked on the “scourge of early and forced marriage”. He highlighted what he called “the barbaric” practice of early and forced marriage, and promised a role for Canada in ending this practice: “Our government is standing up for these girls, even when it’s not always popular or expedient to do so. And in doing so, we have made ending the practice of child, early and forced marriage a foreign policy priority”.

These initial commitments offered little more than superficial solutions such as keeping girls in school and promoting maternal health programs. While improved opportunities for girls to obtain an education are essential, Baird’s comment situates girls as the centre of the problem: if only they would stay in school longer, we might end early and forced marriage.

Mr. Baird may be standing up, but gender equality activists around the world are marching forward with their commitments to address the factors that contribute to gender inequality and thereby lead to early and forced marriage for children around the world.

Such a statement suggests that staying in school is a choice girls can make. It also presumes that schools are safe spaces for girls, when in fact sexual violence and harassment occur within schools around the world. Furthermore, the focus on education is moot, given Canada’s limited and declining support for education as a development priority.

In July 2014, Baird announced that Canada will contribute $20 million over two years to UNICEF with the aim of ending child, early and forced marriage. He again reaffirmed Canada’s commitment to protecting children as a priority for Canada. The connection between delayed marriage and prolonged education is highlighted anew in a press release noting that girls “who marry later stay in school longer”, among other benefits, including maternal health and societal benefits. Therefore the “Government of Canada’s leadership in ending child marriage will touch the lives of millions of girls.”

Girls deserve opportunities to stay in school longer, and promoting such opportunities is indeed an important goal for Canada. However, providing educational opportunities remains a very limited response to the larger challenges women and girls face in their day-to-day lives—challenges that affect their ability to make decisions about staying school.

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Addressing early and forced marriage requires concerted efforts to address poverty, development and gender inequality. It demands raising awareness about the relationship between prosperity, quality of life and later marriage, not just with girls but also with men and boys. Gender-sensitive commitments to ending early and forced marriage must also recognize the need for community-oriented solutions, tackling the commodification of women and girls, and putting an end to the normalization of sexual and gender-based violence experienced by girls and boys.

While Canada has a role to play in addressing international development issues such as early and forced marriage, the approach we take is crucial to the success of such initiatives. Adopting a simplistic motto of ‘keeping girls in school’ is likely to have limited success and potentially harmful implications if sexual violence within schools is not also addressed.

There is much to be learned from the long-standing programs and strategies employed by development players around the world. Examples can be found in the work of Plan International, Plan UK, Plan Canada, and other organizations that have worked to develop improved understanding and relationships between girls and boys, and to promote respect and the equal valuing of men and women.

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Suggesting that Canada is standing up for girls, and for the end of early and forced marriage, denies advocacy groups across the globe their history and agency in contributing to this important cause (particularly groups in those countries most affected by early and forced marriage). Who was standing up for the rights of girls and women around the world before Minister Baird thought Canada deserved the credit? The answer can be found in the work of hundreds of gender equality advocacy groups, and thousands of individuals. For example, the network Girls Not Brides has nearly 400 member organizations in 64 countries that are committed to working to end early and forced marriage. One organization based in Cameroon, Women in Alternative Action (WAA), “works to build forms of engagement between men and women that foster collaboration and dialogue, and establish diverse partnerships dedicated to advancing gender equality”.

These are the sorts of organizations that deserve the credit for standing up for girls and women in the world, since they acknowledge the centrality of gender equality in their efforts to tackle the issue. That is a leap much further than Baird is willing to make. He may be standing up, but gender equality activists around the world are marching forward with their commitments to address the factors that contribute to gender inequality and thereby lead to early and forced marriage for children around the world.

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