We don't go in for that sort of thing

The Ottawa Citizen | May 2, 2010

The federal government's "No sex please, we're Canadians" approach to foreign aid is not limited to maternal health, it seems.

A new Children and Youth Strategy for CIDA (the Canadian International Development Agency) is also drawing criticism for its failure to address the sexual health of young women in the developing world, despite the fact that sexual abuse, sexual exploitation and the dangers of pregnancy loom large in their lives. As with maternal health, those who work in the field say improving the health and well-being of young women and girls must include reproductive health care.

In both cases, it is foreign aid tailored to be inoffensive to the Conservative party's core voters. It is part of a pattern that seems designed to make sure that no one gets the wrong idea about Canadians. From removal of references to gay rights in the new citizenship guide, to the removal of the International Planned Parenthood Federation from the list of foreign aid agencies Canada supports, the message is clear. In the Great White North we don't go in for that sort of thing. No hanky panky here. And don't expect sex to factor into our foreign aid dollars (such as they are) either.

Except that, of course, sex does happen here. Canadians can easily get access to birth control or abortions if they need to. And yet when it comes to foreign aid, the Canadian message is both hardline and hypocritical.

It may play well to certain voters back home, but help for pregnant teenagers in Guatemala and sick mothers in Indonesia should not depend on the perceived whims of Canadian voters. Playing domestic politics with foreign aid is wrong -- especially at a time when Canada's already meagre foreign aid budgets are being cut.

That is what has happened to the Conservative government's plan to make maternal health a centrepiece of the upcoming G8 meetings in Ontario. After months of government officials skating around the question, Conservative MP Jim Abbott told the Commons Monday that Canada's contribution to the G8 initiative to reduce maternal mortality in the developing world "may include family planning," but won't include abortion. International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda and Stephen Harper have since confirmed that position.

The policy of selectively choosing which aspects of the maternal health menu to support ignores scientific evidence about the best way to reduce maternal deaths, and puts Canada at odds with other G8 countries. What is more, it contradicts a G8 document Canadian officials signed less than a year ago in L'Aquila, Italy that said G8 countries will accelerate progress on maternal health "including through sexual and reproductive health care and services and voluntary family planning."

The CIDA strategy on children and youth echoes the maternal health debate. In the developing world, childbirth is the leading cause of death for girls between 15 and 19 years old. CIDA's document, "Securing the future of children and youth," cites that statistic as one of the reasons action is needed.

It also notes that girls are disproportionately victims of sexual exploitation and violence, are likely to marry and have children at a very young age, or to drop out of school, be engaged in prostitution, or experience sexual violence.

The health of teenage girls, and younger, throughout the developing world, the strategy document makes clear, is inextricably linked to their sexual health.

And yet the solutions outlined in the same children and youth strategy document make no reference to sexual health. Instead, the document talks about the importance of education, promoting equality between men and women, nutrition and basic health care. All crucial, but incomplete without attention to the reproductive health of those girls and young women who are so sexually vulnerable.

CIDA denies rumours that references to reproductive health care for young women were removed from an original draft of the document. Access to birth control and family planning for teenaged girls is, however, conspicuously absent.

Carmen Barroso, regional director of the western hemisphere region of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, said CIDA's goals of increasing child survival, improving the quality of education and ensuring the safety and security of children and youth "would benefit immeasurably" from substantial investments in sexual and reproductive health programs.

In many Latin American countries, she said, teenage pregnancy is increasing and many have little access to contraceptives. In addition, unsafe abortions are a leading cause of death among women throughout the developing world.

When it comes to maternal health, Canada's wish to avoid funding abortion may be workable, because there are so many countries involved in the G8 initiative.

Liberal MP Keith Martin said the government's decision to exclude abortion from its maternal health initiative is "disappointing and regressive" but need not scuttle it. Each country, he said, should take a leadership role in one area. Canada could take the lead on access to clean water and sanitation. Another country could champion access to family planning.

The same cannot be said about CIDA's approach to improving the health of children and youth in the developing world. Other countries cannot be relied upon to fill in the gaps.

If the government is serious about improving the health of children around the world -- and that depends whether the strategy is followed with a financial commitment -- it must address the entire picture, including the sexual health of girls and teenagers, in order to make a real difference.

Elizabeth Payne is a member of the Citizen's editorial board.


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