Chipping away at gender equality: Harper's five-year round up

| January 24, 2011

This weekend marked the five-year anniversary of the ascent to power of Canada's exceptionally charismatic (cough*cough) and calculating Conservative PM Stephen Harper. It's surprising that Stephen Harper has lasted so long in a minority government, but for a minority PM, he sure has accomplished a lot -- if by accomplishments, one is referring to the insidious erosion of women's rights that has occurred in the last five years. Let's take a look back at what Harper has done to increase gender inequality, shall we?

Scrap universal daycare

One of the first moves made by the Harper government was to cancel a national childcare program, which most Canadians supported. In its place was offered the Canada Child Tax Benefit, which provides parents the paltry sum of a taxable $100/month per child -- you can't pay a 12 year old to babysit more than a couple times for that amount, let alone access quality daycare.

According to Sharon Gregson of the Coalition of Childcare Advocates of B.C., as reported in rabble.ca:

"Other countries are able to provide childcare for up to 100 per cent of children between the age of three and six. Other countries, like Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Sweden, England and the United States invest more per capita in early childhood development services than Canada does."

This move was supported, however, by right-wing group REAL Women -- a truly terrifying conservative, anti-feminist, anti-choice, homophobic, Judeo-Christian group hell bent on turning back the clock on women's rights.

Drastically cut Status of Women Canada

Next up, Harper dramatically cut the funding of what was Canada's most important body for promoting gender equity, Status of Women Canada. Status of Women Canada provided advocacy, research and lobbying on behalf of women's groups. The government closed 12 out of 16 regional offices of SWC and their operating budget was cut by 38 per cent. Changes were imposed to the criteria for funding for the Status of Women Canada's Women's Program that essentially barred advocacy and lobbying groups from receiving funding. Many women-run NGOs no longer receive funding because they combine advocacy with other services -- like women's rape crisis centres advocating for an end to violence against women. The icing on the cake? The word equality was removed from the Status of Women Canada mandate.

With Status of Women gutted and many women's advocacy groups silenced, who do you think the government takes its cues from when it wants "women's opinions"? That's right. REAL Women, who had this to say about the $5-million budget cut handed to SWC:

"This is a good start, and we hope that the Status of Women will eventually be eliminated entirely since it does not represent ‘women', but only represents the ideology of feminists." (Emphasis theirs.)

Cancel the court challenges program

Up next on the docket -- the court program that provided funding to women's and minority groups to challenge court rulings that violated equality rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Sounds like a good program, doesn't it? And it was -- it changed the way sexual assault complaints were reported in the media, when in 1988 the Supreme Court ruled that publishing victim's names discourages reporting of sexual assault and does not allow privacy for victims. And, in 1995, when a gay couple from B.C. challenged the definition of spouse in the Old Age Security Act, during which the Supreme Court of Canada for the first time ruled that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is prohibited, leading the way for future cases against discrimination.

There have been many, many other important cases brought forth with the court challenges program to further equality and human rights. It seems only fitting that a government that seeks to reduce women's rights would want to stifle it.

Axe women's right to pay equity

It's well known that across the board, women do not earn as much money as men. Harper has taken steps to make sure it stays that way:

"In 2009 the Harper government took pay equity backwards when it introduced the Public Sector Equitable Compensation Act. According to human rights advocates the bill emptied ‘the right to pay equity of its meaning. The new legislated criteria for evaluating "equitable compensation" will reintroduce sex discrimination into pay practices, rather than eliminate it.' The law (passed by stealth by placing it in the 2009 budget where it could not be voted down) introduced additional criteria that would allow public sector employers to consider ‘market demand' in determining compensation -- in effect ensuring higher pay for men even if the work was of equal value."

Leave abortion out of Canada's G8 maternal health funding

Let's start with this fact:

"Complications due to unsafe abortion procedures account for an estimated 13 per cent of maternal deaths worldwide, or 67,000 per year. Almost all abortion-related deaths occur in developing countries." (WHO)

How can a government that in 2009 stated it would champion maternal and child health in developing countries now declare its funding will not be used for abortion? When it is clear women in developing countries will die as a result?

Lack of access to safe abortion services is a serious health concern, and excluding it from Canada's G8 funding is shamefully ignorant of good public health policy and does not support the rights and equality of women. Moreover, it speaks to a government that is socially conservative in its roots, and given the opportunity, might remove women's ability to choose abortion in Canada, too.

Appoint fewer women to Cabinet than previous governments

Despite being half the population (really!) women are still under-represented in government in Canada. Women in Harper's cabinet come in at a woeful 26 per cent down from the only slightly better 30 per cent seen with the previous Liberal government. Canada lags behind a lot of the world in terms of women's representation in government.

From ranking 45 to 52 in a poll of 135 nations, Canada fits in here:

45. Croatia, with 36 women in 153 government seats (23.5 per cent)

45. Seychelles, with 8 women in 34 government seats (23.5 per cent)

46. Singapore, with 22 women in 94 government seats (23.4 per cent)

47. Estonia, with 23 women in 101 government seats (22.8 per cent)

48. Senegal, with 34 women in 150 government seats (22.7 per cent)

49. United Arab Emirates, with 9 women in 40 government seats (22.5 per cent)

50. Pakistan, with 76 women in 342 government seats (22.2 per cent)

51. Canada, with 68 women in 308 government seats (22.1 per cent)

51. Mauritania, with 21 women in 95 government seats (22.1 per cent)

50. Czech Republic, with 44 women in 200 government seats (22.0 per cent)

That's right, Canada is a ranked a pathetic 51 out of 135 nations. Rwanda has the highest representation of women in government, by the way.

A lot of damage has been done in the past five years under Harper's conservative government, and though he has tried to silence our voices, we are still here. Still making up half of the population. It's pretty powerful to imagine how much impact women could have if we demanded to be heard.

Harper may try to pacify us when the next election comes around -- pose with kittens, dress in sweaters, smile occasionally -- but the record of the last five years is very clear. Women's equality in Canada is going backwards. When it's time to vote, let's change this.

Laura Wood is a member of The F Word feminist media collective, which originally published this story on their blog.

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Comments

I agree with all of this except the "court challenges system". I don't think that it should be cancelled either, but I do think it should be inclusive to men who wish to challenge legislation or court decisions which compromise gender equality. As a man who has seen 3 generations of (primarily the male side of) his family chewed up and spit out at great personal emotional and financial expense by the family court system (all the way to the federal supreme court), I'd love to have the means to challenge aspects of that system which I feel inequitably reflect and/or support the rights of one gender over another. That said, I wouldn't scrap the court challenges system, but simply get rid of it's inherently sexually discriminatory underpinnings.

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