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Investing in a feminist economic recovery

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Image courtesy of Anjum Sultana

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Women and low-paid workers are the majority of essential workers who have kept Canada running in the past year. These same workers have been more likely than higher-income workers and men to be forced out of work as their jobs disappeared due the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent data is showing that the rich are recovering in record time, but a lot of women are going into long-term unemployment which is difficult to recover from. 

All levels of government have been siphoning money out of social services, which support women, for decades. Now we need concerted, impactful interventions by all levels of policymakers and advocates to build a feminist recovery.

Anjum Sultana is the national director of public policy and strategic communications for YWCA Canada and was the operations lead and co-author for Canada's feminist economic recovery plan -- the first nationally focused plan of its kind in the world. She spoke to the Activist Toolkit about what a feminist recovery must look like to help women in Canada.

YWCA Canada is the national body supporting the 31 YWCAs across the country which work in 300 communities. Local YWCAs deliver essential services and, during the pandemic, the demand for these services increased and the age-old policy gaps and impact of decades of cuts to essential services became more apparent.

YWCA Canada was seeing that the current status quo of public policy was not meeting the needs of communities, and they thought this would be the perfect opportunity to highlight not only the issues they were seeing across the country, but also the solutions to tackle them. 

At first, YWCA Canada focused on the federal government to ensure policy change was happening to support a feminist recovery as well as funding for front-line organizations and sub-national jurisdictions to bolster a feminist recovery. The federal government invited them to present the feminist economic recovery plan at a federal provincial-territorial meeting of all the ministers responsible for the status of women in the country. Following that meeting, provinces and territories and some municipalities have been reaching out to YWCA Canada to do briefings on the feminist economic recovery plan. 

So what is a feminist recovery? A feminist recovery must be multifaceted and intersectional, focusing on the diverse needs of women, two-spirit, and gender-diverse people. This is the starting point of the feminist recovery -- the need to be thorough in addressing the needs of those who are often marginalized. Take for example the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and the previously established employment insurance (EI). Too many women workers were initially excluded from both because they're more often in precarious, short-term and non-permanent work.

The advocacy of front-line organizations and labour organizations forced the government to change the eligibility requirements for CERB during the pandemic relief period and more work continues to make EI work for women workers. According to Sultana, now some of these changes need to become more permanent and to cover workers who continue to fall through the cracks, like sex workers.

The plan has had some successes and some setbacks. In terms of child care, as Sultana explained, the federal government holds the purse strings, and can play a very important leadership role in terms of financing child care. So one of the plan's recommendations is having at least 1 per cent of Canada's GDP earmarked for early learning and child care. In 2021, what YWCA Canada and others are looking for is at least $2 billion. The federal government invested about one-quarter of that amount during the COVID period in the fall economic statement. More investment is needed merely to stabilize existing child-care spots.

The other component of the plan for child care -- to work together to establish standards -- is moving forward. The feminist recovery plan also asked that a federal secretariat on early learning and child care be established. This recommendation is underway and will allow advocates to continue to push the government to build a national, high-quality, affordable child-care system.

Before the pandemic, the YWCA Canada movement played an influential role in Canada's first national housing strategy because too many women find themselves trapped in unsafe situations due to the lack of affordable housing. Their advocacy resulted in an earmarking 33 per cent of the funding for housing for women, girls and gender-diverse and two-spirit people. 

A lot more is needed. Many charities, non-profits and grassroots groups are at risk of financial devastation because of this pandemic. There has been a lot of advocacy calling on the government to put more money back into communities and back into organizations. The most pressing need is to move from project-based funding to core funding which allows a continuity of services.

The $100-million feminist response and recovery fund is a start but we need deeper changes. Women-focused organizations and women are not projects, and we need to move away from project-based funding more towards core funding for these essential institutions.

Right now, Sultana is deeply concerned about younger generations like Gen Z women, a group now entering the labour force. Gen Z women make up 2.5 per cent of Canada's labour force, but they represented 17 per cent of the total job losses. This pandemic has created a lot of uncertainty at a formative period of their careers. Currently YWCA Canada is working with the Canadian Council of Youth Prosperity to generate policy recommendations, looking at the recovery through an intersectional feminist lens, but also through a generational equity lens.

Finally, how will we know if there has been a feminist recovery? Since the wealthy are already recovering, the stock market and GDP are not the best indicators of a real recovery from a pandemic which exposed how very vulnerable the vulnerable people in our communities are.

One of the things which is groundbreaking in the feminist economic recovery plan is how  it measures "success." As Sultana says:

"We must be bigger and bolder about our measures and think in a different way. So for us, some of the indicators of success are things like, how have we addressed the rise in gender-based violence. If that number has increased and has not dropped, that is a failure on all of us. If we haven't addressed the crisis of affordable housing in this country, that means we do not have a recovery that's working for everyone. We must look at job quality, benefits and income inequality in our nation. One of the things we focused on is measuring what matters, because we know when we are all looking at the same indicators, we're more likely to get the change we want to see."

Maya Bhullar is the Activist Toolkit coordinator at rabble.ca. She has over 15 years of professional experience in diverse areas such as migration, labour, urban planning and community mobilization.

Image courtesy of Anjum Sultana

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