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Child marriage in Canada means country's efforts to end it abroad are 'insincere': researcher
The Canadian government’s foreign policy includes efforts to end child marriage abroad but one researcher says it’s “insincere” because thousands of legal child marriages have occurred here in Canada over the past two decades.
People need to re-think the idea that the practice only takes place in foreign countries, McGill University assistant professor Alissa Koski told CTVNews.ca during a phone interview.
According to her research -- which is currently pending final review – 3,382 marriage licenses involving minors between the ages of 16 and 18 were issued between 2000 and 2018. This was based on data from provinces' vital statistics offices, which issue marriage certificates.
Earlier this month, Koski presented her findings in Vancouver to the Canadian Population Society, which is a member of non-profit Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences.
Koski discovered that Ontario issued the most licences for so-called child marriages, with 1,353. Alberta issued 791, Quebec had 590 and British Columbia had 429 such marriage licences.
But she calls these an “undercount” because it “doesn’t include common-law marriages that involve minors or cases where Canadian children have been taken out of a country, married and returned.”
She said the vast majority of youth getting married (85 per cent) are young girls -- with them typically marrying at much younger ages than boys, and who go on to wed “substantially older” spouses.
“Child marriages have happened in every province and territory over the past 20 years,” Koski said. “It’s not limited to any one part of the country.”
Koski, whose recent doctoral research focuses on child marriages in sub-Saharan Africa and the United States, is urging a conversation asking: “Why is this still enshrined in law?”
“Canadian law permits child marriage but nobody [is] talking about it as a domestic issue,” she said.
CANADIAN LAW ALLOWS CHILDREN TO WED WITH PARENTAL CONSENT
The United Nations -- and various Canada-approved UN-related human rights documents -- defines child marriage as any marriage which includes a person younger than 18.
Marriage laws vary among the provinces but the legal age is generally set at 18. But in 2015, the federal Civil Marriage Act was amended to permit the marriage of youth 16 or older, if they have their parents’ consent or a court order.
Koski calls it a “strange exception” that provinces restrict minors from smoking, drinking and driving, but allow them to legally marry.
CTVNews.ca asked the office of Women and Gender Equality Minister Maryam Monsef for her views on the law that allows the marriage of minors and whether she saw it as a sign of gender inequality, but all questions were deferred to Justice Canada.
In an email, Justice Canada spokesperson Ian McLeod only stated what the 2015 Civil Marriage Act amendment said and didn’t address any of the child marriage statistics from Koski, or say whether the Canadian government intends on changing the law.
“In 2015, the Civil Marriage Act was amended to provide a national minimum age for marriage of 16. For marriages of minors between the age of 16 and the age of majority, the requirements for either parental consent, or the consent of the court (as is the case in Quebec) fall with the constitutional jurisdiction of the provinces and territories,” he wrote in an email to CTVNews.ca late Friday afternoon. “We would suggest that, if you have not already done so, you may wish to speak directly to the provinces and territories.”
Neither Monsef’s office nor Justice Canada addressed critics who argue the law essentially legalizes child marriage in Canada.
MARRIAGE LAWS LEAD TO ‘LEGALIZATION OF STATUTORY RAPE’: FORMER CHILD BRIDE
Koski said studies in the U.S. show married girls are more likely to live in poverty later in life, experience mental health issues and substance abuse disorders.
“In many parts of the world, there are fewer opportunities for girls to attend school, or for girls to enter the workforce than for boys so they may be married at an earlier age than boys,” she said, adding it’s not entirely clear what’s driving the number of child marriages in Canada.
Despite the government stating that forcing a child into marriage is child abuse, Canada’s acceptance of child marriages with parental consent irks Samra Zafar, who was married off when she was 16 years old and then moved to Canada to live with her older husband.
“We talk about child marriage like it’s not happening at home but it is,” Zafar told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview. “And there’s no focus on it [in Canada].”
She said that because Canada allows children to marry with parental consent, that essentially “results in the legalization of statutory rape.”
When Zafar was a teenager, she moved from her Pakistani family’s home in the United Arab Emirates against her wishes, and began a new life with her then-husband in Mississauga, Ont.
For a decade, she said she endured years of abuse at his hands while she raised their two children. But over 10 years, she secretly gained an university education and eventually left the marriage.
Today, Zafar, now a motivational speaker and author, mentors current and former child brides from across the country and in the U.S.
Based on their collective experience, she said the Civil Marriage Act doesn’t take into account the coercion from family members, nor the shame and fear of being kicked out of the family for refusing marriages.
“People think it’s like a child is taken kicking and screaming, at gunpoint or whatever. It’s not like that,” she said. “It’s the cultural pressure. It’s the conditioning at a very young age to believe it’s your ultimate destiny in life as a girl.”
Zafar is disappointed there’s not more concerted public effort to end the practice in Canada, like there is in the U.S. These groups include Girls Not Brides, which is working to end child marriage stateside. Around 20 state legislatures, including Ohio’s, are likely to make reforms in the coming year.
She argued for the abolishment of the Canadian law but said supporters need to “tackle it province by province.”
‘INSINCERE’ THAT CANADA FIGHTS CHILD MARRIAGE ABROAD
It’s estimated that, each year, 15 million girls around the world are married before the age of 18. And Canada regularly touts its feminist credentials particularly when it comes to abolishing child marriage abroad.
In 2015, Canada was one of 85 countries who sponsored a UN resolution to end child marriage in all countries. Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy, which launched in 2017, provides foreign aid to end child marriage abroad.
And on Wednesday, Trudeau nominated the federal government’s first ambassador for women, who would advise other departments, including Status of Women Canada.
But Koski said “there’s a discrepancy there between Canada’s international commitments and our domestic policy.” She added “we need to ask ourselves whether that domestic law is in line with our commitments to gender equality both domestically and internationally.”
“So collectively, that does paint a picture of the issue as something that occurs as something that occurs elsewhere,” Koski said. “I think it’s insincere to be advocating for things elsewhere that we’re not willing to put into practice at home.”
“I think a lot of media coverage of the issue … have almost obsessively focused on allegations of child marriage amongst religious minority communities,” said Koski, whose separate research focuses on media coverage of the issue.
Some of that news coverage recently has focused on the fundamentalist Jewish sect Lev Tahor in Quebec and Chatham, Ont. and the fundamentalist Mormons in Bountiful, B.C.
As for future research, Koski plans to mine demographic data from the 2016 census, which asks the marital status of residents 15 years or older, the number of people in in their households, if they were born in Canada and if they were married abroad.