In Canada, 2.4 million women are the poorest of the poor, as 42 percent of single, widowed, or divorced women are poor in our nation of abundance. In addition, 83 percent of single parents, who have some of the lowest incomes in Canada, are women.
If you are an aboriginal woman, a woman of colour, an immigrant woman, or a woman with a disability, your chances of being poor are four times greater than any Canadian woman. While more women are working, we still earn less than men, 73 percent of their take home pay.
No matter how we try to count ourselves in, women experience restrictions because of economic inequality, even when it involves volunteering to contribute to our communities. Non-profits rely on volunteers for their boards. Some community celebrations, festivals or aid projects happen only because of volunteers. At one time, women who received incomes through provincial sources had their volunteer labour recognized by an extra $50 per month. The Ministry of Employment and Income Assistance (MEIA) now says everybody works, no exceptions, even though for some women it is just not practical, and an exercise in humiliation, exhaustion, and incredible stress.
So when women volunteer now for womenâe(TM)s organizations, just who can afford to volunteer? Certainly not MEIA recipients, because they are participating in mandated employment classes or working for minimum wages with no child care subsidies or medical benefits. And certainly not working class women, because they are too busy representing themselves in court custody and access challenges when they are not working longer and harder to pay their rent.
In the past, many women on limited incomes volunteered as feminist activists in anti-poverty and womenâe(TM)s organizations. At this time, government funding was available (albeit limited) for that word which is shunned today: advocacy. However, with reductions in core funding and the push towards professionalization by sexual assault centres, shelters, and women centres, front-line activism and advocacy appears to have died a long, slow death. Some anti-poverty feminists simply left. With good reason: who wants to be the token poor woman, the token aboriginal woman, the token woman of colour, or the token disabled woman?
Therefore, I am suggesting that most women currently swelling the volunteer ranks at womenâe(TM)s organizations and agencies are university or college students (intent on landing a job) or retired women with partners and no economic worries.
Women living in poverty experience many barriers to volunteering such as child care, transportation and time constraints. In addition, many poor women who volunteer hope it will lead to paid employment, access to more resources âe” such as food, phone, or bus tickets âe” or to meaningful socialization opportunities. So, if one looks at the economic profile of volunteers at womenâe(TM)s agencies and organizations on Vancouver Island today, would it be fair to say that most are middle class? Specifically, then, how does volunteering, doing front-line work for free, recognize womenâe(TM)s worth? How does this act empower all women?
When women-serving agencies run volunteer programs now, isnâe(TM)t that just a guise for free labour? What woman really needs a twelve week intensive program complete with certificate to answer the crisis line? Do women now have to all sound the same on the phone, like a scripted call centre employee? While I acknowledge that feminist training is beneficial, I think that both volunteers and agencies need to actively respect front-line work, especially womenâe(TM)s work.
Some radical activists would describe working with poverty while enjoying a comfortable white middle class lifestyle as classic patriarchy. Those with conflict resolution training will quickly suggest that we donâe(TM)t know, or cannot judge, another womanâe(TM)s intent. However, what most poor women know too well is what it feels like to be patronized.
I know what it feels like to be poor and hungry while watching some white middle class homeowner get recognition and accolades for her wonderful volunteer efforts. I felt incredible anger at the comfort with which many of these women crossed into the âeoegrey areaâe of front-line work and were rewarded for their activities by a culture that then deemed them âeoerisk takersâe and future program management potential. Also, I felt sad that all that feminist diversity theory appeared to go out the window when jobs were on the line. How is a work culture diverse if all the workers are white privileged homeowners from two income families?
Whatever happened to a womanâe(TM)s experience? What happened to feminist anti-poverty activism? There is a big difference between the intent of inclusion for all women and the reality of supplementing paid work with volunteer labour. Do women have to volunteer and intern at women-serving agencies and organizations before they can be considered for employment? Are womenâe(TM)s agencies now mainstream educational institutions, rather than powerful voices speaking out against oppression, violence and poverty?
How do women pay their rent, feed their kids, and get training or an education? How do women transition from violence and abuse to self-sufficiency? Do we ever really transition or do we just have times when we are not quite so poor? How does doing the work for free or less contribute to long-term social and economic change for women?
This approach to staffing womenâe(TM)s and anti-poverty organizations essentially oppresses all humanity and actively moves poverty from a human rights issue towards a solution that needs only the charity of affluent community members.
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