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Women and Children First?

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Issue: 68 Section: Gender Geography: Canada Canada, Toronto Topics: G8, G20

June 11, 2010

Women and Children First?

Conservative policy contradicts "maternal and child health" plan

by Rusa Jeremic

Women take the front line at the World Social Forum in Kenya. Groups are expressing scepticism that the Harper government has women's best interests in mind at the upcoming G8 meetings. Photo: Rusa Jemenic

TORONTO—This January, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper called on G8 leaders to make women and children a top priority during the June summit. In a Toronto Star opinion piece, Harper cited a “pressing need for global action on maternal and child health,” and expressed concern for what he called the world’s “most vulnerable populations."

Women’s rights advocates say that since taking office Harper has in fact undermined equality policy and existing advocacy programs.

In The Harper Record, a book published by the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives, the Ad-Hoc Coalition for Women’s Equality and Human Rights documented how, upon gaining power, the Conservatives made drastic cuts to women’s equality programs. They shut down 12 Status of Women offices and defunded the Women’s Program on equality advocacy as well as the Court Challenges Program, a legal program supporting gender equality, among other things.

“The common consensus in the coalition is that Harper’s policies have been a repressive step backwards for the feminist movement in Canada,” Coalition Coordinator Claire Tremblay explained.

In the January 2009 federal budget the Equitable Compensation Act was passed, preventing women in the Public Service from challenging pay-equity cases at the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

Long-time feminist activist Judy Rebick notes that Harper is “ideologically motivated; he does things by stealth, so most of the things he does are under the wire.”

In 1998, Harper declared that “the federal government should scrap its ridiculous pay equity law,” and in 1999 he called human rights commissions “an attack on our fundamental freedoms.” He announced plans to shut down Women’s Commissions in Vancouver, Toronto and Halifax this March.

In April 2010, the Coalition for Pay Equity in New Brunswick was denied funding despite the fact that, as vice-president Denise Savoie noted, the group had fulfilled all requirements for funding. “Evidently, their decision is based on ideology, not on the value of the project or on the group’s ability to reach the objectives,” she said.

According to the Global Gender Gap Index—produced for the World Economic Forum to measure economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, political empowerment, health and survival of women—Canada has fallen 11 places since Harper took office.

Harper’s announcement of the “Women and Children Initiative” came on the heels of the Canadian International Development Agency’s (CIDA) funding cuts to KAIROS, an ecumenical non-profit organization that supports overseas partners addressing the root causes of women’s inequality.

The Popular Feminist Organization (OFP), a grassroots women’s organization in Colombia which runs 22 centres providing legal and health services and youth programs, is one example of the groups to be directly affected by the CIDA cut. For women, “the OFP represents an important democratic space,” said KAIROS’s Latin America specialist Rachel Warden. The organization is “an alternative to the violence, poverty, and human rights abuses that surround them.”

The evolution of the Conservatives’ focus on maternal and child health remains unclear. In his Toronto Star opinion piece, Harper only made vague mention of the need for clean water, inoculations, and the “training of health care workers to care for women and deliver babies.”

Action Canada for Population and Development, a human rights advocacy group, explains that maternal and child health requires a comprehensive approach that includes sexual and reproductive health and rights, with access to family planning, including contraception.

But these recommendations appear to be falling on deaf ears. In an interview this February in Embassy magazine, Minister of International Cooperation Bev Oda stated the government’s plan will not “support access to family planning and contraception.”

In March, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon confirmed that this new priority “does not deal in any way, shape or form with family planning. Indeed, the purpose of this is to be able to save lives.”

Two days later Harper flip-flopped, stating, “We are not closing doors against including contraception, but we do not want a debate here or elsewhere on abortion.”

Meanwhile, the International Planned Parenthood Federation is waiting to hear if an annual $6 million CIDA grant supporting crucial reproductive health and family planning programs will be renewed.

The battle lines have been drawn. But what is at stake?

Financially it is unclear. The 2010 Canadian federal budget increases international aid by $364 million before capping it for subsequent years. The budget states, “Canada will use its leadership...to focus the world’s attention on maternal and child health and will work to secure increased global spending on this priority.” Yet there is no specific monetary allocation for the new initiative.

In ideological terms the stakes are well-defined. Harper told the World Economic Forum “it is...time to mobilize...to do something for those who can do little for themselves. To replace grand good intentions with substantive acts of human good will.” There is no attempt to address the root causes of injustice.

“There is a connection between a woman having control over her body and taking a first step towards empowerment and equality,” notes Tremblay of the Ad-Hoc Coalition. “If a women doesn’t have control over her body how successful can those other initiatives be?”

It isn’t clear what Harper’s G8 Initiative on Women and Children will achieve. On the contrary, given the systematic erosion of work supporting women’s equality and equity, there is a pressing concern that women’s rights will be further undermined.

“Stephen Harper has been a disaster for women,” observes Rebick. “He is the most dangerous prime minister we have ever had. Harper is dismantling Canada as we know it.”

Rusa Jeremic is an Educator, Writer & Satirist based in Toronto. She has an M.A. in Political Science from York University.

This story was published in The Dominion's special issue on the G8 and G20 summits in Ontario. We will continue to publish independent, investigative news about the G8 and G20 throughout the month of June.

For up-to-the-minute G8/G20 news from the streets of Toronto, visit the Toronto Media Co-op.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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