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David Matas is a Winnipeg-based international human rights lawyer and member of the board of directors at Beyond Borders ECPAT Canada, an organization advancing the rights of children to be free from sexual exploitation.

Between 2000 and 2018, an average of 200 children in Canada, usually girls, were married every year – typically to much older men. This statistic, from a McGill University study, was derived from government records in all 13 provinces and territories.

Statistics do not tell us how many of these children were pressured or forced into an early marriage. Experts in the field suggest that these numbers grew during an isolating pandemic that disproportionately victimized girls.

Children deserve a safe and secure childhood. Developmentally, the consequences of child marriage can be devastating. Children who are married tend to have lower levels of education and live in higher conditions of poverty. They become easily exploited as adults in the work force, while young women who are married as children are more likely to have unwanted pregnancies, face higher rates of maternal mortality, are more likely to be suicidal and are more likely to be victims of domestic violence.

Legally in Canada, at the age of 16 children are free to marry. This is an injustice. Canadian law should not allow for child marriages, full stop. Since 2015, there has been legislation stating children cannot be forced to marry against their wishes. But nothing stops the marriage of children who are pressured to do so.

Under the Constitution, the federal government is responsible for enacting laws on marriage. Provincial governments are responsible for enacting laws that set out the procedures for solemnizing marriage, including the certification process for wedding officiants and issuing licences.

According to this legal arrangement, Parliament is, in principle, responsible for setting the age of marriage. The House of Commons exercised this power in 2015 when it enacted an amendment to the Civil Marriage Act that set the age limit for marriage in Canada to 16. Prior to this legislation, Canadian courts allowed provinces to set their own individual age limits.

But the 2015 legislation didn’t go far enough, as it did not set the age limit at the same threshold as legal adulthood. A parliamentary committee at the time had suggested that Canada should in fact raise the age limit to 18, but the government did not adopt that recommendation. If Parliament were to limit marriage to adults, that legislation would constitutionally prevail over any provincial legislation and would ensure that no one under the age of 18 can be married in Canada. But the government has not done so.

The current federal legislation is also problematic because it has created a disconnect between the human rights that Canada promotes abroad and what we tolerate at home.

In 1981, Canada ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. In 1994, a UN committee that was established under this convention adopted a recommendation on “Equality in marriage and family relations,” stating that “the minimum age for marriage should be 18 years… Marriage should not be permitted before [two people] have attained full maturity and capacity to act.”

Canada is a state party to this convention, and the general recommendations of this committee are considered authoritative statements on the legal duties assumed by its adherents.

There are currently some parliamentary efforts underway to increase legal safeguards for children under the influence of exploitative adults. Two pieces of proposed federal legislation that tackle different aspects of child sexual endangerment include Bill C-291, a private members’ bill that proposes to amend the Criminal Code by criminalizing the printing, possession and publication of child sexual abuse and exploitation material; and a private Senate bill (S-210), which, if adopted, would render it illegal to make sexually explicit material available to young persons online for commercial purposes. We must, as a country, enact additional legislation to protect children that includes raising the age limit for marriage to 18.

Under the country’s Feminist International Assistance Policy, Global Affairs Canada has promised to “empower women and girls and promote gender equality in all our international development.” The ministry also provides information sessions abroad to religious and community leaders to raise their awareness of the inherent risks of child marriage. Therefore, the allowance of child marriage domestically in Canada undercuts the country’s efforts to deal with the problem internationally. The inconsistency diminishes Canada’s credibility.

An important step in protecting children from exploitation globally is ensuring that the protection of children in this country matches our rhetoric on human rights abroad.

The federal law needs to change – child marriage should in no way be sanctioned in Canada. Period.

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