Alison Brewin: Reality of women's rights is hard for Canadians to face

By Alison Brewin

International Women’s Day 2009—a day of celebration and action around the world. And the women of B.C. have a lot to celebrate. Women have all the rights men have in this nation: to education and health care; to employment and housing without discrimination; to run for and hold any office in the land from police officer to prime minister; to choose pregnancy and leave unsafe relationships. Here in Canada, women have the right to wear whatever they want, practice their religion freely and openly, go wherever they want, and marry, love, and have sexual relationships with whomever they choose. Truly something to celebrate.

Added to that, Canada has one of the best legal systems in the world. Every Canadian has strong democratic and human rights in respect to his or her government, and the right to seek the adjudication of the courts if conflict arises with his or her neighbour. There is so much about Canada that is worth celebrating.

Sadly, however, so many of these rights are an illusion to women across the country. One of the central reasons this is an illusion is that, while the rights exist on paper and in the words of political leaders, the ability of women to access those rights renders them virtually meaningless.

To set the stage—because a great many Canadians don’t even realize that women’s equality remains of concern in this country—let me share the most recent findings of the World Economic Forum. The forum uses a number of indexes to illustrate a nation’s health and well-being. One of them is the Gender Gap Index. In 2006, Canada was ranked 14th of 128 nations. In 2007 we slipped to 18th, and in 2008 Canada ranked a staggering 31st in the Gender Gap Index. Some of the nations ahead of us in women’s equality include Namibia, Lesotho, Latvia, Cuba, and Mozambique.

Why are we losing ground when we have such a strong commitment to human rights? The truth is that women’s access to justice when they experience violence, discrimination, civil rights abuses, unequal pay, sexual harassment, and other illegal activities, and their ability to use our exemplary legal system has been profoundly eroded in the past decade.

Let me begin at the micro level. Here in British Columbia, there is virtually no legal aid available for family law or poverty law issues such as residential tenancy, welfare appeals, debt recovery, etc. The cost of hiring a lawyer in a family law matter is out of reach of the majority of women in Canada, given the economic inequalities inherent in our workplace (women continue to earn 70% of what men earn). Language barriers, disability, the experience of domestic violence, and lack of awareness of the legal system make self-representation when faced with an abusive, well represented, and economically secure ex-spouse an absolute nightmare. It is such a nightmare that many women across Canada are choosing to stay in violent relationships rather than risk homelessness, poverty, and the loss of their children.

Next, we move to the macro level. Funding for women’s organizations has been slashed, chopped into piece-meal grants, and re-assigned to non-gender specific organizations. The Court Challenges Program—one that funded equality cases that addressed systemic issues women where struggling with—was eliminated in 2007. And governments across the country are making successful arguments in court that only women experiencing the impact of inequality in the moment that they experience it, are qualified to challenge discriminatory laws.

When a group of lawyers tried to bring a case forward that challenged the lack of legal aid for low income Canadians—despite the availability of witnesses and evidence from those affected—the governments of B.C. and Canada were successful in arguing that only the low income individual denied legal aid was the appropriate person to make constitutional arguments about their equality rights.

In a case in which former street-level sex trade workers brought forward a constitutional challenge of the Criminal Code provisions regarding prostitution, the federal government was successful in having the case dismissed on the basis that only a woman charged under the sections of the code at issue could make constitutional arguments challenging the law she is charged under. This at a time when there is no legal aid for “minor” criminal offences meaning the woman in remand court, pleading guilty to communicating for the purposes of prostitution because she has no lawyer to tell her not to, is expected to raise Section 15 and Section 7 constitutional arguments about the Criminal Code.

And the debate continues to rage about the appropriateness of charges against the “prophets” of Bountiful for practicing polygamy. The most common arguments used for leaving these poor oppressed men alone is that the women of Bountiful aren’t complaining—that the women are happy, clean, dynamic and engaged women. It is worth remembering that the majority of women of the closed, fundamentalist community of Bountiful often have more then five children, were born into the community, and have so little interaction with the “gentiles” outside the community they have never even held cash in their hands, have no choice about who they marry, and have little or no support systems if they leave. It is hard for some of us to understand why these women are expected to come forward to bring their families and communities down, even though their basic human rights are denied them.

And in case we forget about the missing and murdered women around the province, it is unfortunate they haven’t raised the irony of the level of public funds spent on examining the RCMP’s misuse of the taser, when the actions and attitudes of police to aboriginal women remains unexamined.

It is hard to face the reality of women’s experience in this country. It challenges our comfort, our faith in the system, and goes to the heart of our identity as Canadians. I want to celebrate the victory and am grateful every day for the privilege I have as a woman and as a Canadian. But I was born here, have generations of lawyers and politicians from England behind my daily reality. Women like me have no reason to be afraid. And the absence of fear is a privilege so many women in Canada simply don’t have.

Canada is ranked 31st in the world in the Gender Gap Index. Perhaps an investment in giving women the tools they need to access in order to speak out—tools like legal aid, women’s organizations, and the Court Challenges Program—may help us move back up the rankings before it gets worse.

Alison Brewin is the executive director of the West Coast Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund.

The Straight is publishing a series of International Women's Day-related commentaries on-line in the lead-up to March 8.

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