Canadian women’s rights in decline says report
Canada won’t be winning many medals when the United Nations takes stock of women’s equality around the world, according to a new report that charts “systematic erosion” in the status of Canadian women since 2004.
The stinging report, which cites backward progress in everything from pay equity to child care, was prepared by an alliance of feminist and labour activists to counter the more flattering picture the federal Conservative government presented to the UN for the assessment.
The UN is convening a special session in March to mark 15 years since the huge Beijing conference on women in 1995, which laid out plans of action for all participating nations – including Canada.
Women have lost ground due to the elimination of funding for advocacy groups, the scrapping of a national child-care program and a widening wage gap between men and women, the report notes.
Kathy Lahey, a professor of law and gender studies at Queen’s University, whose research is part of the report sent to the UN this week, says Canada can’t claim many bragging rights.
She points out, for instance, that while more women may be in the workforce and at post-secondary institutions, their wage gap with men was actually worse in 2001 than it was in 1981.
In 1981, there was a 15.6 per cent gap between the wages of men and women who had attended university, according to Lahey. It then declined to an all-time low of 12.2 per cent in 1991. But 10 years later, it was up to 18.4 per cent, she says, and there are few signs anything is improving at the moment.
“This backing-off has been going on for quite a few years,” Lahey says.
The report also notes that although women have greater access to higher education, hiring and promotion in academic institutions has not kept pace: men with doctorates are twice as likely to have full-time professor positions as women with doctorates.
The report was released last week by Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action and the Canadian Labour Congress and was billed as a “reality check” on the Harper government’s submission to the UN.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government, in its own report card submitted for the UN session, argued “there are many positive stories” to tell about “women and their place in Canadian society.”
It said progress had been made in getting more women into universities and the workforce, for instance.
Harper has also said women’s issues will be front and centre when Canada hosts the G8 and G20 meetings this year. A UN indictment of Canada’s own record on women’s issues could cast an embarrassing shadow over that goal.
The submission by the labour congress and women’s groups takes aim at the Harper government for closing 12 of Canada’s 16 Status of Women offices, on the grounds that women’s and men’s issues do not need to be separated, and reallocating funding from organizations that support advocacy for women’s rights to those that provide front-line services.
It criticizes the elimination of funding for court challenges, which provided assistance to cases related to equality rights guaranteed in the Constitution.
“There has been a sharp decrease in institutional and political support by the government of Canada for the promotion and protection of the human rights of women and girls during the period 2004-2009,” says the report.
“There has been a systematic erosion of the human rights of women and girls in Canada.”
The report notes Canada has been steadily declining in international rankings of gender disparity over the past few years, at the UN and at the World Economic Forum.
In 2006, Canada placed 14th out of 115 countries in terms of the World Forum’s “gender-gap index” – a complex calculation that takes account of wages, education, health and political power. In 2009, Canada had slipped to 25th place.
Even among 22 OECD nations, Canada is lagging in measurement of the gender gap in wages, the report notes – in fifth place, behind the United States.
Lahey says that the loss of a national child-care program – put in place by Paul Martin’s Liberal government from 2004 to 2006, dismantled when Harper came to power – has represented another backward step for women and their economic security in Canada.
The Conservatives’ $100-a-month universal child benefit is not an adequate substitute or a realistic alternative for impoverished mothers, especially single ones, who need to work to support their families, Lahey said.
The report is critical of the government for doing away with the national child-care program, which would have cost $5 billion in its first five years, and for its opposition to the long-gun registry. The registry, it says, was one of the most significant factors in the decrease of firearm-related spousal homicides in Canada in the past 10 years.
Though the report is critical of the Harper government for cuts to women’s advocacy and equity programs, Lahey says blame for the decline stretches beyond the political.
She says the slashing of government revenues, by political parties of all stripes, has made a real, negative impact on the status of Canadian women. She also says that there are “deep, cultural” forces operating against women’s equality – as evidenced by the fact that any progress is difficult to maintain.
You can download the report “Reality Check: Women in Canada and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action Fifteen Years On, a Canadian Civil Society Response” from http://www.fafia-afai.org/en/news/2010/reality-check-women-canada-and-beijing-declaration-and-platform-action-fifteen-years-canadian-civil-society-response