• Until recently, it was legal for minors in Virginia aged as young as 12 to get married with parental consent. (UNICEF)Source: UNICEF
A change.org petition is urging Australia's Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop to increase foreign aid funding.
Yasmin Noone

16 Jun 2016 - 10:36 AM  UPDATED 16 Jun 2016 - 12:17 PM

A new petition calling on Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop to announce an $800 million boost in foreign aid funding before the federal election has gained over 5,000 signatures in under five days.

The online petition, launched by Campaign for Australian Aid last Friday, is rallying support for the cause by making an example of Plan International Australia’s child marriage prevention program in Indonesia, which is being forced to close because of the government's foreign aid funding cuts.

Plan International Australia claims that it has had to end its ‘Girls not brides: ending child marriages in Indonesia’ program because the government’s $1 billion cut to aid in 2015-16 led to a loss of $1,220,830 in funding.

The government’s 2016-17 budget cut foreign aid by a further $224 million.

“The cuts that were made, as well as the money that was taken out of the forward estimates meant that we had to seriously curb the work that we do,” says deputy CEO of Plan International Australia, Susanne Legena.

“At every turn, we have tried to see how to keep all of our programs going but in some cases, it is just not possible.”

The organisation states that cuts to the government aid program in 2015 flowed onto cuts in the level of funding to Plan International Australia's child marriage prevention program, particularly through the Australian NGO Cooperation program.

It's expected that the child marriage prevention program’s funding will run dry by the end of this financial year and with no funding plans beyond this July, the program will have to officially cease.

Ms Legena says the program, which started in 2014, attempts to reduce the number of child marriages throughout Indonesia by working with children, parents, and religious and community leaders to “understand why marrying off children is not a good thing” and how delaying marriage until adulthood can economically improve whole communities.

The change.org petition does not request that Minister Bishop provide funds to restore funding for Plan International Australia’s child marriage prevention program. Instead, it uses the child marriage cause to coerce Minister Bishop into promising an increase foreign aid from around 0.22 to 0.70 per cent of gross domestic income.

However, Ms Legena says she is positive that if funding is restored, money could be reinjected into the child marriages program and others like it.

“At every turn, we have tried to see how to keep all of our programs going but in some cases, it is just not possible.”

The petition reached 5,000 signatures by Wednesday night.

“We’re asking Julie Bishop to announce, before the election, that her government will match or better the Australian Labor Party’s promise of $800 million additional funding to Australian Aid over the forward estimates, starting with reversing the latest $224 million cut,” the petition reads.

Director for Campaign for Australian Aid, Tony Milne, is hopeful that the petition will gain over 10,000 signatures and convince Ms Bishop to make foreign aid an election issue.

“I believe in people power and I’ve been involved in many campaigns where the power of the community coming together to say what they want has been a powerful thing,” says Mr Milne.

“I’ve seen many politicians change their mind about policy and respond to people power. This petition shows that the public are concerned about the cuts to foreign aid and what these funding cuts mean in terms of Australia’s role in the world.”

“It’s an abhorrent thing. Human rights law says that marriage should be a binding partnership between adults not children.”

The petition will be presented to Ms Bishop in Canberra around 27 June.

SBS contacted the office of Minister Bishop about the likelihood of a pre-election announcement of foreign aid funding.

A spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) tells SBS that the department is now in caretaker mode for the election. "Any decisions on future aid funding would be a matter for the incoming government," a DFAT spokesperson says.

The truth about child marriages

Plan International Australia estimates that around three per cent of all girls in Indonesia are married by age 15, and 17 per cent are wedded by the time they turn 18.

Child marriage often excludes girls from receiving an education and can lead to sexually transmitted infections, multiple miscarriages and childhood pregnancies.

“It’s an abhorrent thing,” says Ms Legena. “Human rights law says that marriage should be a binding partnership between adults not children.”

UNICEF reports that in Southern Asia, girls between the ages of 15 and 19 are twice as likely as women aged 20–24 to die from pregnancy-related complications. Plan International says girls who marry young in the Indo-Pacific region are also less likely to access health care during pregnancy and when they give birth.

“You can’t imagine what it would feel like to find yourself in a sexual relationship as a child, with no knowledge about getting pregnant, finding yourself pregnant, having no access to health care or understanding what is happening to your body when you have a baby.

“We think your life shouldn’t be a lottery depending on where you are born. Just because you are born slightly north of Australia, you are destined to have a terrible experience. We think all children, everywhere should have the right to grow up and live their potential.”

According to UNICEF, if current child marriage trends continue around the world, the number of girls and women married as children will reach nearly 1 billion by 2030.

Last month, the United Nations announced a new initiative to advance efforts to end child marriage by 2030 and protect the rights of millions of girls around the world.

Unlike Canada, Italy and the UK, the Australian government has not provided support towards the campaign.

A spokesperson for DFAT confirms that Australia does not provide earmarked funding to the Global Program to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage.

"Australia provides a voluntary contribution to UNICEF ($21 million per annum in 2015-16) and United Nations Population Fund ($9.24 million in 2015-16) core budgets, which they use to deliver on their strategic plan," a DFAT spokesperson tells SBS.

“With respect to both organisations, this means Australia supports their commitments to promote international standards, provide education, deliver services and undertake advocacy on preventing and addressing child, early and forced marriage.”

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