JohnBaird 6100x407I can remember the moment when I decided to take up the cause of campaigning against early and forced marriages. Shortly after I was appointed Canada’s Foreign Minister back in 2011, I travelled to Perth, Australia to take part in the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Before the leaders arrive, foreign ministers usually get together both formally and informally to discuss a broad range of topics, usually ending with a final negotiation of the communiqué text. More often than not, these discussions are short as our officials have usually completed most of the negotiations.

I remember this trip distinctly because in the draft communiqué there was a brief mention of early and forced marriage. I personally didn’t think twice about the reference, as it seemed like something most nations would condemn openly. However, the discussion that followed was something I did not expect at all.

Ministers and government officials stood around the room accusing me of being culturally insensitive. And there was I – a male, Caucasian foreign minister of a G8 country – having to stand up to other Commonwealth Ministers, some of whom were female, simply over the belief that it is reprehensible to force any young girl into a marriage, against their will.
The sad reality I came to learn after that meeting, was that around the world millions of girls – some as young as eight or nine years of age – are forced into marriage every year. I’m sure that statistic will shock any parent reading this. UNFPA estimates that each year 14 million girls are married under the age of 18. If this trends continues, UNFPA predicts that this number will rise to 15 million annually by 2020. The extent and scale of this problem is heart-breaking.

The damaging effects of child, early and forced marriage are well documented. It harms health, halts education, destroys opportunity and enslaves young women in a life of poverty, and it limits the development of entire communities.

The devastating impact of child marriage is well known and we must address it for what it is – a global problem. We have an obligation to protect those affected by this practice, especially since it targets those most vulnerable. Girls living in poverty, in rural communities and those living through conflict or humanitarian crises that are most affected. The cause and motivations can vary. Some parents believe marriage is the best way to protect and provide for their daughters. Others see marriage as a way to relieve their family of a burden.

For these communities to understand the full extent of the problem, it’s important that they also understand the tangible benefits of doing things differently. Our view is simple. Societies are more peaceful and prosperous when women are more engaged in society, more involved in decision-making processes, and when they are granted the same fundamental rights as their brothers, fathers and husbands. Success, security and stability are a result of the integration and leadership of women - not despite it.

Simply put, it is in every nation’s best interest to ensure women and girls grow-up healthy and educated. Women and girls are an integral resource for a society’s development and it is countries where women are engaged in building the economy that are the strongest and most developed. We believe this is an area where Canada can provide leadership, but not alone. We have worked hard along with countries from every continent. We all want to fight the scourge of child, early and forced marriage.

As a result of these efforts, I’m proud to say that we brought the first-ever standalone resolution on child, early and forced marriage to the United Nations General Assembly this year. On December 18th, it was passed due to consensus. The resolution reaffirmed commitments to protect children’s rights and calls for further action in the General Assembly to address this barbaric practice.

We couldn’t have achieved this historic milestone alone - we worked with the likes of Ghana, the Netherlands and Zambia to ensure that it received overwhelming support from around the world. While the global outpouring of support has been heart-warming, and something I could have used back in Australia, there is much more to be done.

These conversations, like the one I had in Perth, may cause some discomfort, but that is of small concern compared to what is at stake. After all, if we won’t speak out for these young girls - who will? It is my fervent hope that, one day soon issues like early and forced marriage don’t need to be addressed in communiqués at foreign summits, the world would be a much better place because of it.