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Harper's true commitment to women and children, at home and around the world

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Prime Minister Harper is getting lots of favourable media coverage for his commitment to renew funding for maternal and child health in developing countries.

Three and half billion dollars looks like a lot of cash for vaccination and other programs aimed at the world's poorest and most vulnerable -- until you realize that the Harper government has, in fact, reduced Canada's overall foreign aid spending by 20 per cent over the past four years.

In proportion to its GDP, Canada is now very near the bottom among rich countries that provide development aid.

Many have also noted the irony in Harper's avid commitment to the evidence of science when it comes to the need for universal vaccination against measles, smallpox and other virulent diseases.

His government is not known for its commitment to most kinds of science, especially climate science. Harper has radically reduced Canadian government support for scientific research, in particular so-called "pure" research that does not have immediate economic benefits.

Some of the new maternal and child health money will go to improve the gathering of statistics in developing countries. In justifying such an investment, the Prime Minister said: "You cannot manage what you do not measure."

Those pearls of wisdom come from the man who, against mountains of scientific, expert advice, abolished one of Statistics Canada's most important tools: the long form census.

Harper's maternal and child health initiative also makes a point of withholding support from groups that include abortion in their arsenal of tools to improve the lot of women.

The Prime Minister describes abortion -- entirely legal in Canada -- as something too touchy and too hot to handle. He then adds, without irony, that, in any event, the aim of the maternal and child health program is to obviate the need for abortions.

Such an outcome would be wonderful, if it were only, in any way, realistically feasible.

Anyone who has ever met a very unhappy pregnant girl in her early teens, who got that way after being forced into a childhood marriage, knows only too well that access to abortion is not a frill issue. Immature girls, lacking fully developed bones, muscles and organs, face far greater risk of injury or even death carrying a baby to term and giving birth than do more mature women.

For those girls, and many others, access to safe abortion can be a matter of life and death.

The Harper government has also shown little interest in a number of other major challenges facing women in many parts of the developing world.

One of those challenges is the scourge of sexual violence against women as a weapon of war.

The Canadian-based Nobel Women's Initiative hosted a screening, last week, of "Seeds of Hope" a documentary on the fight to combat the widespread use of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In the course of the discussion that followed the screening, it emerged that one of the most effective and successful Canadian groups involved in this fight is KAIROS, the church-based organization the Harper government famously de-funded with, literally, the stroke of a pen.

Somebody associated with KAIROS, or with one of its main partners the United Church of Canada, once said or wrote something that was too critical of Israeli policies for the Harper government's taste. Weighed against that transgression, KAIROS' long record of good work on the ground in central Africa was of no consequence.

Ending a small, successful initiative at home

On the home front, the NDP's Critic for the Status of Women, Manitoba MP Niki Ashton, noted that while the government was busy gathering plaudits for its spending on maternal and child health in other countries, it was ending funding for one small, but successful pilot program aimed at women and children in a handful of First Nations communities in Manitoba.

The program is called "Strengthening Families -- Maternal Child Health" (or SF-MCH). Since 2005 it has been providing counseling, education and mentoring to vulnerable families in 14 of Manitoba's 63 First Nations Communities.

Part of the aim of this grassroots initiative, which is conducted in close partnership with Aboriginal communities, is to head off the need to put First Nations children into the provincial child welfare system (which has too often yielded catastrophic results).

The highly respected, pan-Canadian benchmarking organization, the Health Council of Canada (itself now also abolished by the Harper government) said of SF-MCH that it was a public health "best practice."

The program is still operating, but the federal government has decided that it has better ways to spend its money, and the "Strengthening Families -- Maternal Child Health" program  will wind up in 2015.


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