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100 organizations ask federal party leaders to commit to a debate on women

Photo by Keith Reed

More than one hundred organizations across Canada came together to ask federal party leaders to commit to a debate on women in the upcoming 2015 election through a press conference on Parliament Hill this morning.

YWCA Canada, the Native Women’s Association of Canada and Oxfam Canada said women’s rights must be an election issue and called on all federal parties to make meaningful commitments to change women’s lives for the better both in Canada and internationally.

Oxfam Canada's Women's Rights Policy advisor Lauren Ravon told Vancouver Observer that the nation’s first and only debate on women’s rights was thirty years ago when Brian Mulroney, Ed Broadbent and John Turner spoke to the nation about how their policies would impact women’s lives. The federal leaders now likely believe there has been enough progress since then, she added.

“It’s definitely long overdue,” said Ravon. “If you watch the debate that was held 30 years ago that’s online, you’ll see that many of the issues are the same, whether its accessible childcare, housing, pay equity, poverty, violence, women’s under representation in government, lack of access to services. It’s all the same issues. I think there had been a sense that Canada had made progress on gender quality and women’s rights, and I think that the leaders haven’t been feeling the pressure in recent years to really to come out strongly and have strong campaign forms on women’s rights issues.

The press conference was organized by Up for Debate - a campaign to create conversation on gender equality in the lead up to the next federal election. The organizations, which includes women’s groups in every region of the country, Aboriginal associations, community groups, international development organizations, faith-based groups and labour, represent more than 3.5 million Canadians who joined in on the campaign.

“And we think [the debate is] in the interests of all the parties,” said Ravon. “We know that in the last election, half a million more women than men voted, that’s clearly saying something about the voters that are out there, and they want the parties to be speaking to them directly.”

Executive Director of the Native Women’s Association of Canada Claudette Dumont-Smith says it’s time for a national conversation about building a Canada that works for all women.

“Can we really say that the battle for women’s rights had been won when over 1100 Aboriginal women and girls have been murdered in Canada since 1980, and each day more than 8,000 women and children seek protection from a shelter to escape violence and abuse?” asked Dumont-Smith in a press release.

West Coast Women's Legal Education and Action Fund’s legal director Laura Track outlined the campaign’s three priority policies in an e-mail to VO:

“We are asking all federal parties to tell Canadians how they intend to tackle gender inequality in Canada, and champion women’s rights globally. We are calling on the parties to make meaningful commitments to:

Get serious about ending violence against women and girls: We need a plan in place to address the root causes of violence against women in Canada, including the extreme levels of violence against Aboriginal women and girls. We want Canada to show leadership on the international stage to end violence against women in all forms.

Take action to end women’s economic inequality: We want parties to recognize women’s contributions to the economy and society, and commit to funding public services and social programs that help lift women out of poverty, beginning with universal childcare, affordable housing, and fairer immigration policies. We want a significant increase in the percentage of Canada’s international development budget that is allocated to gender justice and women’s empowerment.

Support women’s leadership: We want our leaders to recognize the fundamental role that women’s organizations play in bringing about positive social change, and support stable, effective organizations and institutions to champion justice and equality for all women - in Canada and abroad.”

Part of the campaign is calling for is funding in the Canadian context for women’s organizations, so that they can do independent research and advocacy work, said Ravon. There is some funding for doing front-line service delivery, life crisis centres, shelters, transition houses, but women’s organizations have been stripped of funding to fully raise awareness to really work on some of the more profound issues that has to do with legislation attitudes and beliefs around genders, she added.

“Internationally, the Canadian aid budget includes nothing to support women's organizations overseas and to support women’s human rights defenders, said Ravon. “We see Canada recognizing women leaders like Malala Yousafzai and of course standing up for women’s rights, and at the same time we’re not seeing any funding going to these women’s organizations themselves and so we’d like to see a dedicated funding developed in the Canadian aid budget for women’s organizations.”

So why are these organizations campaigning this discussion now? The debate will bring attention to the priorities, needs and realities faced by women, said Track. 

“Having the federal leaders publicly debate issues related to gender equality and women’s lives is a first step in meaningfully engaging half of the population,” she said. “It will also bring public attention to the inequality and discrimination women face, within our borders and around the world.”

Oxfam’s Ravon mentioned that in the debates in 2011, the word ‘women’ was hardly pronounced. The only issue that was discussed specifically was violence against women and that was only mentioned one time. A vibrant women’s movement within civil society is very important to making progress on women’s rights and also making sure legislation gets implemented, she added.

“I think our main point is we want the leaders to publicly commit,” said Ravon. “We heard from the parties that they’re positive they support the idea, but we want them to come out and say it publicly. They should come out and talk about what they propose, talk about how their policies are going to affect women’s lives in Canada, and also how they are going to make Canada once again a champion for women’s rights. We want to give them the opportunity to propose that publicly.”

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