ABOVE: At the UN General Assembly, Prime Minister Stephen Harper champions improving the health of women and children in developing countries, but faced criticism for dismissing the UN in another way. Eric Sorensen reports.
OTTAWA – The Conservative government backed a British-led declaration at the United Nations this week condemning war rape, but whether that extends to helping victims obtain abortions remains unclear.
Similarly, a Canadian focus at the UN on early and forced marriage made no mention of whether the effort would include helping child brides have access to reproductive health services.
“These girls are children; they quite simply are not ready to be parents,” Baird said in a speech before a UN panel on Wednesday.
The declaration on war rape, signed by 113 nations, was a follow-up to a Security Council resolution adopted in June that referred to providing “non-discriminatory and comprehensive health services, including sexual and reproductive health” for rape survivors.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is poised to go further in an upcoming report to the Security Council on women in conflict. The New York-based Global Justice Center quoted an advance copy as saying female victims of war should have “access to services for safe termination of pregnancies resulting from rape.”
Canada’s position on the subject of allowing humanitarian aid to flow to organizations that provide safe abortions has not been articulated when it comes to war rape and child brides.
Ottawa pledged $5 million in the spring to address victims of sexual violence during conflict. So far, nearly $1 million has gone to a family hotline in Afghanistan helping to refer victims to legal, medical and psychological help.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird was asked specifically Wednesday if the government would fund organizations that provide access to medically necessary abortions.
“What we want to do and what we spoke out loudly and clearly earlier today is that we want to stop early and forced marriages,” Baird responded.
“I think that we all believe that we can do that in a generation, and that involves a legal response, it involves changing societal values and it involves changing customs and other practices.”
Baird’s office provided no further detail when asked for clarification on the subject.
The British government explicitly outlined its position earlier this year that its development budget can be used without exception to provide abortion care where allowed by national laws.
“In conflict situations where denying an abortion in accordance with national law would threaten the mother’s life or cause unbearable suffering, international humanitarian law principles may justify performing an abortion,” reads the statement by the UK Department for International Development.
Three years ago, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper unveiled his G8 maternal and child-health initiative, he made clear that none of the nearly $3 billion in funding would go towards abortions in the developing world.
Whether that policy has been effectively applied to all humanitarian help remains an open question. CIDA has said it doesn’t itemize the medical services each grant recipient provides.
NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar called it hypocritical not to fund abortions in the developing world when women in Canada have access to a full range of services.
“If your’e going to deal with forced marriages, you’re going to have to deal with the outcomes of forced marriages,” said Dewar.
“The way that most women, particularly young women, are subjugated is because they’re having to carry to term children they don’t want to because they have no choice.”
Strong opposition remains within caucus and in the pro-life movement to having any aid dollars wind up helping to provide abortion services overseas.
Matthew Wojciechowski, Campaign Life Coalition’s representative at the UN, said he fears the discussion around help for rape victims is being hijacked by abortion-rights activists.
“In one sense, (the government) says they’re not going to send money that might promote these services, however the money is sent and who’s there to actually hold people accountable?” Wojciechowski said.
“Is the government actually keeping its promises or is the money trickling its way to pro-abortion groups that use that money to push forward their pro-abortion agenda?”
Diana Rivington, a former CIDA executive, said the real problem is that the government no longer allows for the funding of smaller groups in individual countries that may have culturally sensitive ways of tackling issues such as forced marriage and help for rape victims and their children.
Non-governmental organizations must now apply for projects with specifically outlined goals, making it even less likely that funds will flow to reproductive services or to local groups on the ground.
“They’re cherry picking — We’re going to do this on sexual violence, but we won’t support access to full and comprehensive access to sexual and reproductive health care, and we won’t look at changing attitudes or supporting women’s rights organizations to make change and to look for enforcement at their level,” said Rivington, now a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa and an adviser with the McLeod Group.