Women’s centres across Canada have advocated and organized around women’s issues and have responded to the needs of women through many innovative projects and programs. They recognized that there are real and specific challenges that women face in our culture in situations associated with violence, poverty, health and employment.
Women have established 37 women’s centres in 33 communities across British Columbia. They are widely recognized as a valuable community asset by the general public and proudly described by their government as centres that, “provide a variety of services, including information and referrals, support groups, crisis counselling, job entry programs, child care services and housing registries.”
During their 30 years in operation these centres blossomed as safe places, free of sexism, where women could seek help, connect with others, or simply warm up with a cup of tea. They are spaces where women are addressed as women and not as lengthy social insurance numbers waiting in a queue. They have become part of the fabric of our diverse communities.
With the scheduled funding cut to women’s centres, the governing Liberals are about to throw the state of women’s services in B.C. back several decades. They started by abolishing the Minister of Women’s Equality, merging this portfolio with leaky condos, water and sewer grants and the 2010 Olympics. Then they started axing programs. Women’s centers in B.C. were on their chopping block. As of March, 2004, women’s centres in B.C. will no longer be eligible to receive any support from the provincial government.
The “Heartland”, as the Liberals like to call it, is taking a huge hit — in particular, the city of Nelson. Located in the southern interior and a community long recognized for its strong community atmosphere, Nelson is home to B.C.’s oldest women’s centre. During the last six months alone it has seen an increase of almost 70 per cent in the number of women walking through its doors looking for basic needs like food.
“We’ve even had men come to our doors recently looking for food,” said Tanya Wright, an employee at the centre. She has also noticed an increase in the number of women who are looking for emotional support.
Nelson’s women’s centre has already had to reduce its capacity to serve the community because of the looming cuts. Among other things, they have reduced their drop-in hours by half. Tisha Joy, a single mother who recently arrived in Nelson from Ontario, and who uses services at the centre, says, “It’s a shame women won’t have a place to go and it is our kids who will evidently suffer the most.”
B.C.’s interior will not be alone in suffering. The vast majority of women who use women’s centres are from urban areas and it is here that the symptoms of the disintegration of the social safety nets will be felt most keenly.
Cindy L’Hirondelle started working for the Status of Women Action Group (SWAG), located in Victoria, one month before the Liberals took power. She fears their doors will soon have to shut forever, as they rely solely on funding from the provincial government. She’s also afraid many people and organizations who work for social justice will soon be feeling the effects of “donor fatigue syndrome.” This is a result of the many organizations trying to get funding from a small number of charitable sources — just to keep their doors open.
“I’m disgusted that all these cuts are happening and I can’t find a single public record demonstrating that our own Minister,George Abbott, has made any effort whatsoever to meet with women’s centres.” Abbott is Minister of Community, Aboriginal and Women’s Services.
The B.C. coalition of Women’s Centres has reported that over 300,000 women relied on and used these services in 2001. It also notes, “This totals a cost to the province of $5.65 for each woman helped by Women’s Centres in BC, or 91 cents for every woman and girl in the province.”
The Minister of State for Women’s Equality, Lynn Stephens, who was appointed to her position by Abbott, says in an interview with her riding newspaper, the Advance News in Langley, that the disparity between men’s and women’s average pay exists because of women’s desire to work part time. “That’s a choice they have made,” Stephens said.
Much research on why women earn less than men has proved this statement false and Stephens can only be seen to be misleading her constituents and the public. Her own boss proudly states on the government’s Budget website that they are addressing the economic needs of women as they recognize that, “In 1999, women who worked full-time earned about 64 cents for every dollar earned by a man.” By implying that this inequality does not exist, Stephens seems to show a lack of understanding of the issues.
The Minister justifies the government’s decision to slash all funds to women’s centres by suggesting they amalgamate with other types of social services. This suggestion disregards the needs that are specific to women.
Governments in Sweden, Denmark and Finland are balancing their budgets but not on the backs of the poor and disadvantaged. They are implementing progressive policies that will guarantee equal representation in all levels of decision-making. They are putting more funds towards women’s health and children’s services because they see the logic in preventative medicine.
Women’s centres in B.C and across Canada provide a much needed service. Most are run by a small, dedicated staff and are closely tied to the communities they are helping. If the B.C. Liberal government closes these services, supporters and employees of womenâe(TM)s centres believe there will be an increase in violence against women, an increase in health care related costs and a reduction of the quality of life in our communities.