Where are women in Harper's agenda?

  • National Newswatch

Despite the great strides made by women in Canada over the past decades, women's rights are marginalized and ignored by the Conservative government.Women earn roughly twenty percent less than men, face barriers to employment, strive to break through the “glass ceiling”, and suffer the violence affecting one third of all women in Canada. Canadians should therefore ask where the government stands on the issue of women's rights as human rights as well as on women's equality.We do have the Charter of Rights and Freedoms which came into force in 1982 under a Liberal government, and has had, and must continue to have, a transformative effect on women's rights. Women were critical in ensuring Section 15, the equality clause, and Section 28, which guarantees that all charter rights shall apply equally to men and women. These fundamental rights must be protected and defended, yet the gender wage gap and gender-based violence remain as barriers to the realization of these human rights.While many Canadians believe that the gender wage gap has been addressed, the gap in income between men and women in Canada is actually 19 per cent. According to the Conference Board, Canada ties with the United States for 11th spot of 17 peer countries, and earns a “C” grade.Canadians should remember that in Budget 2009, the Conservatives attacked the rights of Canadian women by undermining pay equity, and in 2010 voted down a Liberal private member's bill to implement the recommendations of the 2004 Pay Equity Task Force, including a new pay equity commission to ensure pay equity in the federal public service, Crown corporations, and federally-regulated corporations.Despite the Prime Minister's wanting to be perceived as a “trained economist”, he fails to appreciate that the gender wage gap does have an impact on families at the micro level and the economy at the macro scale, and that addressing the gap must be an economic imperative. The wage gap is ignored in budget after budget by the Conservatives, despite the fact that, for example, a 2005 Royal Bank of Canada report estimated the lost income potential of women in Canada due to the wage gap at about $126-billion a year.In order to help narrow the gender wage gap, day care must be addressed at the national level. Women are more likely than men to make labour force choices that allow them to balance their caregiving responsibilities; women with children make 12 per cent less than women with no children; and women with children must pay for the expense of childcare if they want to work.While women and men work the same number of hours for pay each day, women spend almost two hours more per day in unpaid work. Canada has repeatedly received failing grades from international bodies, including the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the United Nations Children's Fund, for having no coordinated, national early-childhood learning and care policy.Canadians should be demanding that the government act to give families choices for child care, reduce waiting lists for the limited number of existing child care spaces, and give women the opportunity to contribute financially to their family and to the economy, should they so choose.Canadians should also question why the Harper government is not maximizing women's contribution to the economy, not focusing on women in Canada's economic growth strategy, and not removing barriers to the workplace. More to the point, why is the Harper government suppressing the aspiration of over half of our society?Moreover, Canadians should also question what action the government has taken to put in place a national strategy to end violence against women? Gender-based violence hampers productivity, reduces human capital and undermines economic growth—and of course, first and most importantly, violates human rights.The news that Health Minister Rona Ambrose plans to make ending family violence a major theme of her tenure in the portfolio is welcome, but Canadian Medical Association President Dr. Louis Hugo Francescutti wants to ensure that resources are put in place, and that the Minister's efforts turn into a national strategy. Canadians should demand to know when the Prime Minister will commit to a summit on women.Violence against women is an abomination, yet throughout our communities across Canada, women of all ages face violence every day. Gender-based violence cuts across boundaries of culture, religious membership, and socio-economic status, and is the most socially tolerated and wide-spread of human rights violations.Each year in Canada, violence and abuse drive over 100,000 women and children out of their homes and into shelters. Violence against women costs Canadian society more than $4 billion each year and takes an incalculable human toll. Tragically, in Canada, women continue to outnumber men nine to one as victims of assault by a spouse or partner, and girls between the ages of 12 and 15 years are at greatest risk of sexual assault by a family member.Will the government work in partnership with the provinces and territories to develop a national strategy and action plan to combat violence against women? Will the government engage in a national consultation to discuss the effectiveness and challenges of approaches that are supposed to increase the safety of women and children while working to prevent such crimes from occurring?A national strategy should include violence awareness and prevention programmes, a national 1-800 hotline number for women who are being abused, sustainable financial support for safe shelters and civil legal aid and expanded training for court officials and law enforcement officers.It is time the Harper government champion women, and not sideline fundamental issues, such as pay equity, child care, and ending violence against women as “ women's issues”, but recognize that these are human rights and economic issues. It is time we have an equality act, an equality statement with each budget, real engagement with women's groups, and equality impact assessments of policies to see if Canada is actually making progress on human rights and on its promises.Kirsty Duncan, M.P., is the Liberal party critic for CIDA, consular affairs, and status of women.