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An anti-feminist prime minister is suddenly concerned with maternal health. What's happening?

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When I heard that Stephen Harper was suddenly taken with a desire to promote maternal health as the key issue for the G8, I have to admit to being perplexed.  I don't think I've ever heard Harper talk about women's issues. Behind the scenes his government, which of course means him, has not only cut funding to most women's groups and the most progressive NGOs like Alternatives and Kairos but have eliminated the word "equality" from their women's bureau.  Harper is no doubt that most anti-feminist PM we have ever had.

The media reported that a coalition of NGO's had recommended the issue to Harper but still, when was the last time Harper listened to anyone?  Interesting how the media has so far ignored the just published report in the Canadian Medical Association Journal that fetal and infant mortaity rates are 2.7 times higher in Inuit inhabited areas of Canada than elsewhere.  Women's and Indigenous groups should be insisting that Harper put his new commitment to work in his own country too.

At first I thought, more damage control from his proroguing catastrophe.  Then, Mr. Ignatieff appeared promising that the Liberals will restore funding to women's groups and generally priorities women's issues.  Hopefully that means restoring the idea of a national child care policy.  What up?  It's been eons since women's issues were at the top of the political agenda. 

 Frank Greaves from Eko Research says his next poll will show that the traditional gender gap between the Liberals and Tories is re-emerging.  Obviously Harper is trying to win back the women's votes he seemed to have had for a while. 

There was another election where women's issues came to centre stage in 1984.  Polling was getting more sophisticated and the gender gap between the Republicans and Democrats in the US election had become clear.  Women were against Reagan.  In those days, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women was a powerful organization and the media savvy NAC President at the time, Chaviva Hosek, called for a Leader's Debate on Women's Issues. It actually happened.  Watch it if you don't believe me.  Not only did Brian Mulroney, John Turner and Ed Broadbent debate women's issues on national television but they did so under questioning from members of the NAC executive rather than journalists.  It had an amazing impact by demonstrating the increasing power of the women's movement.

 So the moment has come again and it is critical that women's groups and others supporting women's equality move into the discussion to ensure that issues like equal pay, child care and ending violence against women are part of the discussion.   There is an opportunity on February 14, the day that vigils and memorials  are held across Canada to honour the missing and murdered Aboriginal women, now estimated to be around 500.  Another one will come with International Women's Day in and around March 8. 

It seems to me the time has come to make sure that women's equality get back on the front burner and stay there.  Despite the tremendous advances of the last 40 years, women still earn only 70 percent of male wages.  I am convinced most of that is because of the lack of child care and the resistance of corporations and government to end patriarchal forms of functioning that were created for men with wives and that hold on tentatiously excluding many women and the increasing number of men who want to take their parenting responsibilities seriously. 

Moreover all levels of government are ominously talking about tightening their belts, which will mean massive cuts to the public service, where the best paid jobs for women are located.  They can find money for the banks and the mostly boys on Bay Street but not to protect good jobs for women, let alone expand them.  At the municipal level, in Toronto for example, the City is talking about major cuts to childcare. 

Despite the rhetoric of the mainstream parties, it will take a revival of a powerful women's movement to make sure that our stalled progress to equality doesn't get driven back.

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