The federal government's Status of Women department is very excited about International Women's Day this year. A whole week of events allows Canadians to "celebrate progress toward equality for women and their full participation, reflect on the challenges and barriers that remain, and consider future steps to achieving equality for all women, in all aspects of their lives." This year's theme: "Strong Leadership + Strong Women + Strong World = Equality".
I like it. It's very mathematical.
And on the 50th birthday of Barbie, that big-boobed, small-waisted blonde who was famously programmed to say "math is hard," it's a bit of "take that!" from the Minister of State for Status of Women, Helena Guergis. Math's not so hard now, right Helena?
It's just too bad the Status of Women math doesn't add up.
Less than a month ago, the Harper Conservatives released a budget and stimulus package that, like budgets dating back to the Liberal 1995 Program Review, made a series of compromises that will disproportionately affect women and doled out benefits that will disproportionately benefit men. We're tightening our belts (choking off the air to poor women), and stimulating the economy (making sure men get back to work). Like governments before it, the Harper government is ignoring the link between women's equality and government decisions about spending, taxation and distribution of resources.
This disconnect was echoed in media reactions to the budget in the weeks following its release. During a call-in on CBC's Cross Country Check-up, a woman from the East Coast cogently suggested that Harper's budget had once again left women out in the cold. She noted that decisions about spending and taxation continued to disadvantage women, since the Employment Insurance (EI) system still left two of three women who pay into EI ineligible for benefits, and that another budget had passed without any investment in affordable child-care.
The host, Rex Murphy, waited patiently for her to finish her remark, acknowledging, "yes, there is that issue," before asking her if she had anything to say about the budget. As if her comment about the budget's impacts on women was not really a comment about the budget, but a complaint from a nagging child asking "what about me?"
Rex is, unfortunately, not alone. When it comes to the budget, women's rights are often seen as a side issue, a special interest, or worse, just something feminists find to complain about.
In fact, nothing could be more important to women's rights and empowerment than government decisions about programs, taxation, and the distribution of wealth. A federal budget is the clearest statement of the government's annual priorities. It is all about choices: what gets funding, what doesn't and most importantly, who pays the price (literally and figuratively) for those choices. The full realization of women's rights will not come through cheerleading and motivational speeches about women's equality and strength (much as I love to see our former beauty queen Minister for Status of Women rally the troops). It will come through serious efforts at all levels of society - backed and supported by serious dollars and decisions from governments. And, in case anyone needs reminding, we cannot create an egalitarian or truly free society while 51 per cent of the population continues to experience sex-based discrimination, disproportionate poverty, and shocking vulnerability to sex-specific violence.
That's what drove FAFIA (the Feminist Alliance for International Action) to commission an analysis in 2005 of 10 federal budgets going back to 1995. What they found is that during tough times, governments cut the programs that women need most. By virtue of being child-bearers, more vulnerable to violence, statistically lower income earners, and more precariously employed, women are far more reliant on programs like Employment Insurance, income support, the child tax benefit, housing, legal aid. Almost $12 billion a year was cut from these programs between 1994-1997. Yet when the government began registering surpluses in 1998, it did not re-invest in these vital services, but instead cut taxes ($152 billion worth) and spent on defence and innovation.
Don't take FAFIA's word for it though. The United Nations committee charged with overseeing the implementation of the most important and comprehensive international women's rights treaty -- the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) -- agrees. In November 2008, the CEDAW Committee reviewed Canada's record, and produced a highly critical report. In it, the Committee highlights inadequate social assistance rates, housing and the failure of law enforcement agencies to address the violence and disappearance of aboriginal women across the country -- both direct results of budget cuts and budget priorities.
According to Nancy Peckford, FAFIA's Director of Programs, Harper's most recent budget continues the pattern. Even as governments wade into deficit-spending, and commentators celebrate the triumph of Keynesian economics, the programs women need the most are the first to be negotiated off the table and the injection of funds to create jobs and boost spending are primarily targeted at male wage earners.
The centrepiece of this budget's job-creation effort is $16 billion in infrastructure spending, focusing on roads, bridges and transportation. The jobs that will be created will go overwhelmingly to men, since only seven per cent of construction workers are women, and only seven per cent of those in the trades and transportation are women. Making matters worse, no equity measures are attached to the spending, so governments have no responsibility to reach out and try to benefit men and women with the money.
The Budget extends Employment Insurance benefits for five extra weeks, but only for those already eligible for coverage. According to FAFIA, "[the budget] does nothing to change the eligibility rules that have discriminated against women since the 1996 changes to the EI system", rules that have resulted in three times as many men than women qualifying for EI during the last reporting period. Two of three women who pay into the EI benefits system can't access the funds when they need them.
Finally, Budget 2009, that smorgasbord of spending for everyone, and a tax cut for their dog, had no money for improving access to child care, a service fundamental to improving women's access to job training and paid work. Canadian families will continue to have the worst access to early learning and child care in the developed world. Nor was there money to fix an emaciated legal aid system, which has increasingly failed to provide the means for women survivors of violence to defend themselves in court. And the Budget 2009 tax cuts -- of which there are plenty -- won't do a thing for the 40 per cent of women who don't make enough money to pay taxes.
In view of the fact that the government is neither strengthening the hand of the women, nor promoting our "equality", I offer the following as a more accurate, though admittedly less cheerful, equation for the Status of Women International Women's Day theme:
A long history of discrimination + Cuts to the social safety net + Failure to provide basic services like legal aid, affordable housing and childcare + lack of investment in sectors of the economy employing any significant number of women + bargaining away fundamental rights like pay equity = women highly vulnerable to violence and poverty, rendered invisible and voiceless.
I can see it in pink on the Status of Women website -- can't you?
Erin Simpson is an Ottawa-based activist and writer. She works full-time
for an international women's rights organization, and serves on the board of
directors of a second-stage women's shelter in Ottawa.