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Harper government provides $20 million to UNICEF to help end forced marriages

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MONTREAL - The federal government is taking another step in its ongoing efforts to end forced marriages.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has announced that Canada is contributing $20 million over two years to a UNICEF project that targets six countries.

UNICEF wants to accelerate the movement to end child marriage in Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Yemen and Zambia.

The agency's plan involves supporting efforts in those countries to strengthen programming and political support to end the practice.

"That's where UNICEF is active and where we feel we have an appropriate environment where we might meet with some early success," Baird told a news conference on Friday.

He pointed out that girls as young as nine are forced into marriage against their wills.

"The sad reality is that every day, more than 38,000 girls are forced to marry," Baird said, calling it a complex and widespread problem that requires global action.

"It's estimated that a staggering 14 million girls are married every year before they turn 18 — this means that one in three girls in the developing world marries before her 18th birthday and one in nine marries before the age of 15."

Baird made the funding announcement at a Montreal gym as young female gymnasts went through their paces nearby.

The foreign affairs minister, who has been championing the initiative for the past three years, said the sheer scale of the problem was "truly heartbreaking."

"Child, early and forced marriages put the lives and future of girls at risk," he said. "It is damaging to the girls, damaging to their societies and it is not in line with Canadian values."

Baird added that last fall he announced an additional $5 million to tackle the causes of early, child and forced marriages around the world.

"We've already supported projects in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Ghana, Somalia and Zimbabwe and our contributions to UNICEF are the next stage of our campaign," he told reporters.

He said that everyone suffers when young girls can't reach their full potential, including their communities and their countries.

Baird was also asked by one reporter about arranged marriages of young women in Canada.

He admitted that it happens more than people might think, but added that two of his federal colleagues are working on the problem.

Baird said that Status of Women Minister Kellie Leitch and Justice Minister Peter MacKay will have more to say about what Canada can do to get its house in order.

"We want to ensure that no young girl in Canada is the victim of an early and forced marriage," Baird said. "So we will be coming forward in short order to discuss more about what we can do here in Canada."

UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake says "child marriage denies girls the right to be girls and to make decisions affecting their own lives."

He points out in a news release that girls who marry later stay in school longer, give birth later and are better able to reach their full potential to the benefit of girls themselves, their families and their societies.

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