Canadian Women's Foundation fights poverty, violence against women, and 'sexual slavery'

Women in Canada are taking the lead in making change, says the Canadian Women's Foundation – from ending 'sexual slavery' to addressing poverty and relationship violence – but not without controversy.

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But the work of mainstream - and well-funded - women's groups like CWF is not without controversy. Some feminists argue that corporate sponsorship and a focus on philanthropy reflect a degree of privilege not shared by most women. Does that privilege affect the Canadian Women's Foundation's voice, especially when it comes to speaking out on structural problems?
 
“Many of the barriers and things affecting the issues are systemic,” she says. “It's not about changing individuals to fit into bad systems – it's also about changing bad systems.
 
“I've been working on women's issues for 35 years. The issues have changed over the years ... we try to make sure women have a voice.”
 
Since it was founded in 1991, the Canadian Women's Foundation has funded thousands of women's groups in every region of the country – focused not only on supporting survivors of violence against women, but also prevention, advocacy and empowerment.
 
“In the early nineties, it was evident that government support for women's issues was beginning to shrink, and in general, support for community organizations was beginning to shrink,” Wybrow explains. “Pretty quickly, our founding mothers decided they wanted to find a way to help women capture the power of our own resources ... instead of waiting for men and the government to do it for us.
 
“Our goal really is to fund work across Canada that helps women and girls out of poverty. (But) it's not another bake sale – we focus the power of women's philanthropy.”
 
One of the biggest emerging issues, Wybrow told the Vancouver Observer, is the trafficking of women – both for sexual exploitation, or “sex slavery” as she calls it, as well as for domestic labour. She told horror stories of First Nations girls younger than 14 being lured off their rural reservations, only to discover their “boyfriends” would start pimping them as sex workers.
 
“Lots of it is gang-related,” Wybrow explains. “It's scary stuff, it really is.
 
“Trafficking of people is now the most lucrative organized crime activity, after drugs. It's really sexual slavery. People generally think it happens in other countries, not in Canada.”
 
It's an issue that has created much controversy in the women's movement in recent years. Well-funded, mainstream organizations such as the CWF have focused much attention on violence against women in the sex trade, in pornography and through human trafficking.
 
But they have come under fire, often from younger feminists, for what some call “sex negativity” -- persistently focusing on the dark side of the sex industry, for instance, without including or making space for the voices of sex workers themselves. Others critics argue that the issues prioritized by mainstream women's groups are not the priorities of women who experience racism, poverty, or immigration barriers – those who are marginalized, in other words, and whose causes rarely attract brand-name donors like CWF can.

Some of the tensions came to a head last year during an important women's movement conference, Women's Worlds, which the foundation both sponsored and participated in. Those tensions were emblematic of some of the hot discussions and contoversies within the feminist movement, particularly around sex worker rights, antiracism, transgender issues and economic privilege.

In feminist circles, some describe the women's movement as a series of waves. The first was the women's suffrage struggle for the vote, around World War I – which in Canada succeeded in enfranchising white women. The “second wave,” which famously blossomed from the 1960s onward, emphasized women's equality, advancement and empowerment.

Some claim feminism has entered a “third wave,” where the emphasis is on the diversity amongst and between women, and multiple forms of oppression are linked. Third wave feminism tends to focus on antioppression, antiracism, as well as criticisms of the capitalist economic system – and often rejects past feminists' criticisms of pornography, sex work, and even their focus on “women” to the exclusion of others.
 
“Thank God for the 'third wave,” Wybrow says, laughing. “There's a wave, and thank goodness for that!
 
“There's lots of fabulous young women doing great activism. In many cases, they're right about many things they criticize. The women's movement has not always been perfect, by a long-shot. There has been racism and other issues in the women's movement. Young women are helping to change that.”
 
So, does the CWF call itself “feminist”?
 
“We don't have one definition of feminism; there are many,” she says. Clearly, the answer is neither yes or no. Sometimes, Wybrow says, the term has been used “to exclude,” both within society as well as within the women's movement. She describes her approach, rather than relying on the feminist label, as “pretty open” -- “if you think women and men deserve equal opportunities” then you can get involved in the foundation.
 
“Many women wouldn't call themselves (feminist),” she says. “(But) it is definitely a feminist vision of philanthropy.”
 
Philanthropy is the key to the Canadian Women's Foundation's success, and its vision. While there are countless examples of women's shelters, rape crisis lines, media literacy trainings and reproductive health centres – just to name a few of the women-oriented services out there – CWF's unique emphasis is on leveraging donors to support those programs, and researching those donations' effect.
 
“We always take a positive approach to addressing the issues: helping women identify what assets they have – financial but also social networks, confidence – and helping women build on those assets,” Wybrow says. “When we speak abut the need for change, it's firmly based in evaluation, research and the experiences of women and women's organizations across the country. It's solid information – it's not coming out of nowhere.
 
“We take a collaborative approach, and really try to bring donors and government along with us where we can.”
 
Many of the group's corporate donors, for instance, end up having staff who volunteer on CWF projects or events, and their direct involvement builds a broader understanding of issues women face. And hopefully, Wybrow says, with that understanding will come a broader analysis of the “systems that are creating the problem in the first place.”

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