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NEW YORK, United Nations - Action trumps rhetoric, Prime Minister Stephen Harper told a United Nations panel on maternal and child health Wednesday as he outlined $203 million over five years to help mothers and babies in developing countries.
Harper said Canada would back nine specific projects that will help to pay for more immunizations, provide basic health care and set up community services to ease the dangers of childbirth and pregnancy.
"The world is making significant progress in improving the health of women and children in developing countries and reducing the unacceptable mortality rates faced by these vulnerable populations," Harper said.
"Canada is at the forefront of these efforts and I am proud that through today's support, more women and children will benefit from better nutrition, increased food security and access to important, life saving vaccines."
The money detailed Wednesday is part of Canada's commitment of nearly $3 billion over five years to the issue of maternal and child health, part of the Muskoka Initiative on Maternal, Newborn and Child Health launched by G8 partners at the Muskoka Summit in 2010.
Before the maternal health panel, Harper met privately with computer billionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates and his wife Melinda Gates. Harper said their international charitable foundation is a great partner for Canada.
Harper also said Canada will host an international meeting next year to ensure program providers are accountable for the money they spend.
Helene Laverdiere, the NDP's international development critic, was quick to slam the government not only for re-announcing three-year-old funding, but for failing to include support for reproductive health.
"Canada's Muskoka funding should have included funding for women to access sexual and reproductive health services, including emergency contraception and safe abortion," Laverdiere said in a statement.
She also assailed the government for rejecting last week's call from the UN Human Rights Council for a comprehensive national review of violence against aboriginal women.
"Under Harper, it's clear that Canada is not a real leader on women's health and women's rights."
Continuing on the theme of protecting women and children, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird was also in New York on Wednesday, co-hosting a panel on child, early and forced marriage.
The practice is "an appalling violation of human rights" and Canada is committed to putting a stop to it, Baird told the panel.
Child, early and forced marriage "robs girls of their right to education and jeopardizes their health," he said.
It's estimated that millions of girls under 18 years old — some as young as eight — are forced into marriages each year in various parts of the world, including some in Canada.
"We want to stop early and forced marriages, and I think that we all believe we can do that in a generation," Baird said later. "It involves a legal response, it involves changing societal values, and it involves changing customs and other practices."
He cited as a "powerful call for action" a recent report by a Toronto-based legal aid group that that found young girls from Canada are being forced to travel abroad in order to participate in forced marriages.
"I don't think any nine or 11-year-old girl is in a position where she should be forced to marry at that young age, particularly — as the panel discussed — marrying men as old as 45 or 55 years old."
Complications from pregnancy and giving birth at a young age can result in severe maternal disability or even death. But Baird refused to say whether Canada would fund groups that provide medically necessary abortions to girls who are forced to marry and become pregnant.
On Monday, Baird was scheduled to speak to the General Assembly on Canada's behalf — a job opposition critics in Ottawa have said ought to fall to Harper.
But the prime minister has long insisted it has never been a Canadian practice to have the prime minister speak at the UN every year.
Paul Dewar, the NDP foreign affairs critic, said he does not buy that argument.
"This is two years in a row that we have had our prime minister in New York with all the other world leaders there and that he has chosen not to address the United Nations," Dewar said on Tuesday.
"Some of us are concerned that we simply aren't willing to engage at the United Nations."
Harper said he and select cabinet ministers are making speeches and taking part in other activities related to UN operations.
On Thursday, Harper is to attend a talk on the economy hosted by the Canadian American Business Council.
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