Women transforming cities: Vancouver conference highlights critical voices

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A racialized precarious workforce and racialized incarceration and poverty. Murdered and missing women and an epidemic of apathy towards domestic violence. A decline in pay equity and gaps in women's economic and political participation.

These are just a few of the symptoms of Canada's gender oppressive landscape and the reason that elected officials, unions, urban planners, academics and advocacy groups are coming together for the inaugural Engaging Women, Transforming Cities national conference on May 30.

"Local governments are patriarchal institutions. Men hold power and they are going to make decisions that favour and defend men. As women we need ourselves to be organized politically and have a stronger voice and presence to challenge patriarchy," says Prabha Khosla, an urban planner, author and activist who will be giving a keynote address on 'Gender equality and social inclusion in municipal policies and services.'

"Unpaid care work by women never figures into decisions, priorities are given for how men go to work. We have women raising children in poverty because there aren't sufficient services. Cut backs impact women headed households the most."

"The precarious work sector is racialized, women are making $10/hour and not even getting 40 hours a week," explains Khosla, who is calling for anti-poverty strategies that look at how we can support women so that they can raise their children with more dignity. "With no recreational services available, her kid can't transfer from school to the community centre and she is going to loose working hours and be at increased risk of poverty."

A more progressive model can be found in Venezuela, who just passed a new labour law that will allow full-time mothers to collect a pension.

"Governments need to learn that women have value and they have a right to the services they need. I want my taxes to go to supporting women with better child care, not bomber planes. Who are we at war with? Did they ask us before they blew billions of dollars on fighter jets? We have a right to be making decisions on the budget."

Khosla believes that the money spent by the department of national defence would be better spent on affordable housing. "In Toronto, we have increasingly racialized, low-income ghettos. With no access to transit, people are locked in and you have big apartment buildings run by slum landlords. As women we do not have the same access to housing as men. We don't make enough money as women, there is 25 cent difference in women's wages."

A report released in 2010 by the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action and the Canadian Labour Congress, found that the pay gap between men and women was worse in 2001 than it was 1981, marking a decline in women's rights. And an April 2013 report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that it would take more then 200 years to close the pay gap in Canada.

"When housing is not affordable, we have women staying in abusive relationships, and hooking up with men to find a place to stay," explains Ellen Woodsworth, who is the founder and co-chair of the Women Transforming Cities Society.

"I see First Nations women afraid of breaking up with their abusive partners for fear that they and their children will have nowhere to go. In Vancouver we do the homeless count every year, but it often misses women who are couch-surfing or picking up some guy so they have a place to stay."

"Every time I go down to the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre, I see a flyer for another woman who has gone missing," laments Woodsworth, who believes that non-gender focused policy has a detrimental impact on women and girls of all ages. "Elderly women are almost invisible. Over 50 per cent of single women over the age of 65 are living below the poverty line. And we always talk about child poverty which makes me angry, because children aren't poor unless families are poor."

"The one place that a person should be safe is in their own home. When I was elected, I thought it was important as a woman to add voice to the issue of domestic abuse," says Councillor Barinder Rasode from the City of Surrey, who will be speaking at the conference on 'designing a safer city for women.' "As elected representatives we are to provide roads, sewers, water and also quality of life, being safe in one's home."

Khosla agrees that domestic violence should become a responsibility of local government and that, unfortunately, a dichotomy exists where violence against women is considered private and violence against men is considered public. "How fast do the cops pick up a guy if he beats up another guy in a pub?" asks Khosla, "But how slow are they to pick up a guy who hits his wife or partner?"

"Vancouver had disappeared Indigenous women. Why were there not inquiries over those women for many years?" asks Khosla, "Because they were First Nations and female, so who gives a damn? What priority do women have in the national and international agenda?"

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Stephen Harper received criticism after he stated he was skeptical of commissions of inquiry when he was asked about the prospects of a federal inquiry into the missing and murdered aboriginal women.

"I am waiting for the day when the Mayor of Vancouver and Chief of police say that the Downtown Eastside is not a place where predators can come and do violence against women with impunity,” says Angela Marie MacDougall, Executive Director of Battered Women's Support Services, who will be presenting on the 'Innovative Implementation of an Equity Lens.'

MacDougall is also a Feb. 14th Downtown Eastside Memorial March committee member.  "We are dealing with the effects of oppression and colonization. Even though the march happens every year, we've got to this place where there have been provincial inquiries, but it's taken 22 years to get here and a lot of women are dead and it matters very much."

"The issue of missing and murdered women in Vancouver is a symptom of what we have seen across Canada in other municipalities; there is a level of apathy in terms of law enforcement, they don't take disappearances seriously, blaming women for their victimization and not respecting the families of the missing women. There are systemic issues and an interconnection between how law enforcement responds or doesn't respond."

"We have racism and the repercussions of colonialism," says Woodsworth. "We need to stand up and expose the violence, expose the underlying prejudices and create policies and funding to address them. When you have girls being bullied, women msising, raped and killed in the cities, these are the things that should be considered significantly."

Woodsworth says we need to be thinking about how to engage women to be change makers, and with only 22 per cent of elected councillors and 16 per cent of mayors across Canada being women, we are far from having equitable municipal representation. Canada also currently falls short of the 30 per cent minimum considered to be a critical mass of women in parliament.

"There is not a sufficient energy put into how policy can be feminized as well as racialized," says Khosla.

Woodsworth believes we need to put a gender lens on our cities, and MacDougall says that we still have lots of work to do, but "if we are prepared to hear the decolonizing intersectional feminist voice, it is a strong voice to address systemic issues for women."

Together these women join many others in the rising chorus that is filling the streets of our cities, challenging and chanting for change.   

 

The Engaging Women, Transforming Cities Conference is being held in Vancouver BC, one day prior to the 2013 Federation of Canadian Municipalities Conference FCM, which takes place May 31-June 3.

Samantha Sarra is a journalist and activist.

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