Is That All There Is?

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With the possible exception of women’s hockey, it’s been a very bad year for women in Canada. March 8 is International Women’s Day. Since the late 1970s, women in Canada have been celebrating each step toward women’s equality. This year there isn’t much to celebrate.

British Columbia is the worst. The grisly story of that pig farm outside Vancouver reminds us whose life is important and whose isn’t in our society. The fact that the disappeared were women, prostitutes, drug addicts and mostly aboriginal made their lives less important to the police, who failed to put the necessary resources into stopping a serial killer. It is a lesson for those who think racism and sexism no longer exist in mainstream Canada.

Then there is the provincial government of Gordon Campbell. The untold story of his brutal cuts is that they are devastating to women’s equality. After years of struggle by the feminist movement to win legal recognition of the rights of abused women, Campbell has eliminated the Crown Victim Witness Service Program and cut the Violence in Relationships Program. His government will charge fees for those seeking support from deadbeat dads.

Single mothers on welfare will be cut off once their children are three years old. Already, low welfare rates are being cut even further. So will legal aid.

A cut of $360-million over three years to funding for the Ministry of Children and Family Development will mean the closing of sexual assault centres, women’s resources centres and transitional houses.

In resource-based British Columbia, most of the good-paying jobs for women are in the public sector. Campbell’s 30 per cent reduction in government and unprecedented decision to rip up the contracts of teachers and healthcare workers will affect women disproportionately.

The only good news in B.C. is that the feminist movement is fighting back as part of a broader movement of resistance.

But the bad news isn’t just in B.C. At the federal level, we had a reduction of women in cabinet. To make matters worse, when Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett publicly criticized the Prime Minister for going backwards on women’s representation in cabinet, she lost her job as chair of the Liberal women’s committee.

This year, uppity women got hit wherever you looked. Sunera Thobani, a former president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC), faced a savage media attack for criticizing the United States foreign policy in the aftermath of September 11. Not content with criticizing Thobani’s remarks, columnists in both national newspapers went on to stomp on what’s left of the national women’s movement.

A little later, when the then-president of NAC resigned barely a month after her election, it didn’t make even a ripple in the news. NAC is a shadow of its former self, and most provincial women’s advocacy groups have disappeared. It is only those groups actively involved in combating violence against women who have retained their strength.

So is there anything to celebrate on this International Women’s Day? Some would say we should celebrate the liberation of women in Afghanistan. I will hold my applause there. First, we are not getting the full story about the price of the war. Observers estimate Afghani casualties to be more than 3,500 — many, if not most, women and children.

Second, if the warlords take over from the Taliban, the situation may not be much better. Doctor Sima Simar told a Toronto audience as much just before she returned to Afghanistan as Deputy Prime Minister in charge of women’s rights. She said that, between the warlords and the Taliban, “the choice of women was to be raped or to be prisoners in their own homes.”

For me, I will be celebrating the legacy of the women’s movement, this new generation of women and men. Everywhere I look, I see women who have no question in their minds that they have every right to do whatever they want. I also see an increasing number of men who are deeply committed to gender equality, not only in the workplace, but also in the home.

And while women are losing ground on the electoral level, in community groups and social movements, women are leading the way. Whether in the campaign to save public healthcare or the anti-globalization movement, women leaders and activists are playing a major role.

It is these social movements around the world that are fighting back against the savage anti-woman, anti-people policies of the Gordon Campbells of the world. And it is the global nature, creativity and energy of these social movements, including the women’s movement, where I find reason to celebrate this March 8.

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