Canada’s Foreign Aid Strategy Should Prioritize Condoms

Canada's recent record of advancing women's rights internationally is strong, but critics say the country is dropping the ball in one key place: protecting child brides from pregnancy.

Jul 28 2014, 4:58pm

Image via Flickr user trec_lit.
Canada has been doing some pretty incredible shit when it comes to women’s rights internationally. Just this past week, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird traveled to London to speak up for girls at a global summit on ending child marriage. And back in May, Prime Minister Harper was praised by likes of the president of the World Bank and the United Nations Secretary General when he hosted a summit for ending the preventable deaths of poor mothers and their babies in developing countries.

But, even as Canada pours millions into ending child marriage and billions on maternal and child health, critics say that Canada's not doing enough to help some of the young girls who need it most: pregnant child brides, who often have little say over when or whether they have babies.  

Fourteen million girls are married before they turn 18 in developing countries each year. With hips that are typically not ready to bear babies, they’re five times more likely to die from childbirth than girls in their 20s. About 70,000 die from complications related to pregnancy each year.

The prospects for their babies aren’t so bright either. They’re more likely to be stillborn or die just a few days after they come into the world. And those that survive are typically less healthy and less weighty than babies born to women in their 20s.

The statistics above might be heartbreaking, but there’s some good news: apart from a serious effort by Canada and others to end child marriage, part of this problem can be solved with condoms. Well, not just condoms, but family planning programs involving education, contraceptives, and other resources to help couples plan for and time the birth of their babies.

But Canada has a spotty record when it comes to doling out condoms and other family planning tools. In 2010, when Prime Minister Harper pledged $5 billion to help mothers and their babies in the world’s poorest countries, he also said that none of the money would go to family planning or abortion. In the face of heavy criticism, he quickly reversed his decision on family planning. But, by March 2014, less than one percent of the $2.28 billion the Canadian government had spent on maternal health went to family planning programs, Action Canada for Population and Development (ACPD) reported.  

ACPD’s executive director, Sandeep Prasad, says this is a huge problem for teenage girls because nine out of ten teenage pregnancies occur within a marriage.

“Generally, young girls who are forced into marriage don’t have agency, right? They don’t have choice,” says Cicely McWilliam, senior advisor at Save the Children Canada. “They are inherently going to have a more difficult time making their own healthcare choices than someone who can choose when and whom they wish to marry themselves.”

More than half of the girls under 18 are married in six out of the ten countries where Canada’s maternal health efforts are focused. Many of them are among the 222 million women in developing countries who don’t have access to contraception.

But Rosemary McCarney, president and chief executive officer of Plan Canada, says that family planning is “embedded in most of the programming” that groups funded by the Canadian government are doing to cut down on the deaths of mothers and babies.

“When women come in to get their children vaccinated, you’re talking about that,” McCarney explained. “When they come for their antenatal visits, you’re advocating exclusive breastfeeding for the health of the child. Exclusive breastfeeding also has some efficacy on delayed fertility. There are all kinds of ways that it’s part and parcel of what we all do.”

At the same time, Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund, says that there simply isn’t enough funding dedicated to family planning internationally. While more governments have started to pay attention to the need for it, we may not even have accurate data on the scale of the problem of early pregnancies. When the deaths of young brides go unrecorded in poor countries, they are “lost in the statistics,” he says.

“The bottom line on all of this is the status of women,” he adds, explaining that we have to pay attention to gender equality to create lasting change.  

But Diana Rivington, the Canadian International Development Agency’s former director of human development and gender equality, says that, while the Canadian government boasts about “saving mummies and babies,” it’s not dedicating enough resources to promoting women's rights and gender equality. These two things are critical to ending forced marriage and child pregnancies in the long-term, she explains. 

Between 2006 and 2012, only one to two percent of Canada’s overseas development assistance was spent on projects focused mainly on gender equality, says a report published earlier this year by a women's policy group involving the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, Oxfam Canada, and other Canadian non-profits. Since 2008, less and less aid has been given to organizations dedicated to women’s equality in developing countries, the report adds.

“If you do not see women and girls as independent actors in their own right, if you don't see that women and girls as much as men should be choosing the timing and spacing of their families, you have a real challenge," Rivington says. “You have to see women and girls as valuable and as worthy of being treated independently… In the short term you save women and girls' lives by doing maternal health and building up a health system, but then you should also be providing family planning information and supporting that.”


Vice Channels