Status of Women Minister Kellie Leitch poses for a group photo after the swearing in of the federal cabinet in Ottawa, July 15, 2013. Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press
Status of Women Minister Kellie Leitch is blasting the "abhorrent" practices of rape as a weapon of war and the forced marriage of young children in the developing world.
But she's defending Canada's refusal to fund any aid projects that might help the victims of such barbaric practices obtain abortions.
Leitch, who was at the United Nations on Friday to celebrate the UN's International Day of the Girl, told The Canadian Press that Canada needs to target its aid efforts and has chosen to focus on pre- and post-partum maternal and child health.
As a pediatric surgeon, she said she's confident Canada has chosen to target its aid where it will do the most good.
"We have to pick a targeted area, where we're going to be able to have an impact," Leitch said in a phone interview from New York.
"As a physician, I'm very confident in saying that we have chosen the right one, that pre- and post-partum care is the place where we'll have the most meaningful impact to save the lives of children and their mothers."
She noted that childbirth is one of the leading causes of death among young women between the ages of 15 and 19 and blamed that largely on the appalling conditions in which they're frequently forced to give birth.
'NDP calls position illogical'
Leitch estimated that Canada's focus on ensuring women have a clean and safe environment in which to give birth has so far saved the lives of more than 64,000 mothers and as many as 1.3 million children under the age of five.
"These are very, very meaningful numbers."
She did not directly respond when asked repeatedly why the government refuses to consider abortion as an option for pre-partum care in the case of child brides or war rape victims.
Even some anti-abortion activists and religious groups are prepared to make exceptions for victims of rape and incest or when the mother's life is in serious jeopardy.
New Democrat foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar called the government's position illogical, hypocritical and indefensible.
"When you deny women access to safe abortions in those instances then you actually aren't really serious about helping these victims," Dewar said in an interview.
"It's just incomprehensible that they would go on the world stage and say ... 'We recognize this is a horrific thing but we're not going to help them."'
The Conservative government in the United Kingdom has adopted a policy of funding safe abortion care in conflict zones in instances where continuing a pregnancy would threaten the mother's life or "cause unbearable suffering," Dewar noted.
To deny an abortion in those circumstances "amounts to inhumane treatment in the form of an act of cruel treatment or torture," the UK policy states.
'Standing up for girls'
In a speech Friday to the UN General Assembly, the text of which was provided in Ottawa, Leitch boasted that Canada "does not shy away from tough conversations" about the need to empower women and to eliminate violence against them.
She decried the fact that an estimated one in three girls in the developing world is married before the age of 18, some forced into marriage at as young as nine years of age.
"This practice denies girls' rights, disrupts their education and severely jeopardizes their health," she said.
"Our government is standing up for these girls, even when it's not always popular or expedient to do so."
Canada is "equally committed" to preventing sexual and gender-based violence in conflict zones, she said, calling it "a violation of the rights of both women and girls and a barrier to peace and development."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper made child and maternal health his signature priority when he hosted the 2010 G8 summit in Muskoka. At that time, he announced $3 billion in aid, none of which was to go to groups that provided abortion or abortion referral services.
At the UN last week, Harper announced $200 million in support of various projects to improve the health of mothers and children and to bolster immunization campaigns.
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