Kendra Milne: B.C. government has dropped the ball in protecting human rights for women

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      By Kendra Milne

      West Coast LEAF is the first and only organization in B.C. dedicated to promoting women’s equality through the law. We work to make sure that laws and policies in B.C. support the full participation and dignity of women. We issue an annual report card assessing B.C.’s progress towards fulfilling its obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and we make submissions to the UN when Canada is being reviewed for its compliance with its obligations under CEDAW and other international human rights agreements.

      It is from this context working at West Coast LEAF that I can tell you that women all over B.C. regularly have experiences like the ones Mai [Eaglespeaker] describes.

      The provincial government in B.C. has unfortunately failed to make significant progress in many areas of women’s human rights protected under CEDAW. The reality is that, at an international level, Canada has slipped significantly in gender equality rankings.

      Within Canada, B.C. lags behind other provinces in many areas. Provincial inaction and a lack of commitment to government obligations under CEDAW mean that many women in B.C. simply do not have an equal opportunity to live their lives in dignity, security, and safety.

      For example, in term of employment, the average earnings of women in B.C. are well below the Canadian average female earnings and the pay gap between male and female workers in B.C. is larger than the national average. Indigenous and racialized women, and women with disabilities, experience lower wages and bigger wage gaps still. The majority of minimum wage earners in B.C. are women, but at the current minimum wage, the earnings of a full-time, full-year worker are below the poverty line.

      B.C.’s child care crisis also has serious consequences for women’s equality that are deeply entwined to their economic security and financial independence. Mothers’ workforce participation rates in B.C., access to regulated child care spaces in B.C., and provincial public investment per space are all also below the Canadian average.

      There are not enough high quality, safe childcare spaces and those that exist are prohibitively expensive even with a childcare subsidy. Further, regulated spaces often do not provide meaningful access for women working casual jobs or shift work.

      Many women are forced to put their children in patchwork childcare situations, including webs of neighbours, acquaintances, or siblings who provide care for their children, or entering into exchanges with other single mothers to trade childcare. These situations are often chaotic, stressful, and sometimes unsafe.

      Other women, and particular single mothers, are simply not able to find or afford the childcare necessary to enable them to work. The cost is so high, that they know they will not be able to earn enough to cover the costs of childcare, housing, and other necessities. These women may be forced to either become financially dependent on another person, often an intimate partner, or go on social assistance in order to survive.

      Financial dependence on a partner puts women at increased risk of relationship violence and makes it harder for them to flee violence if it occurs. Women who are forced to rely on social assistance often get trapped in a cycle of deep poverty because income and disability assistance rates are so low they do not allow them to meet basic needs like housing and food costs.

      Because of these factors, B.C. consistently has among the highest poverty rates in Canada, with poverty rates for single women, and particularly single women caring for children, at shocking levels. Despite all of this, B.C. remains the only province in Canada without a comprehensive poverty reduction plan.

      In terms of housing security, B.C. also fairs poorly.Incredibly low vacancy rates, sky rocketing rents, and inadequate social housing stock, especially for larger families, resulting in single mother-led families being at heightened and unequal risk of housing insecurity. Stories of families sitting on a waitlist for subsidized housing for years are unfortunately all too common.

      Housing insecurity is often experienced differently by women than by men. Women are typically underrepresented in street homeless counts because it is not a safe option for them and it puts their children at risk of apprehension. Instead, women are much more likely to stay in unsafe housing, or enter into or stay in relationships they would not otherwise choose, in order to maintain a roof over their heads and over the heads of their children.

      Women and others in the private rental market have little protection due to B.C.’s weak tenancy laws, including inadequate rent controls and a lack of enforcement mechanisms that would allow tenants to enforce their right to rental housing that meets basic health and safety standards. As a result, families face an uphill battle to ensure their home is safe and face limited options if they try to find other affordable housing.

      Given all these problems, what is the solution?All of the issues highlighted above are areas in which the provincial government in B.C. can take immediate action to comply with CEDAW and to improve the lives of women. In November 2016, the CEDAW committee expressed concerns about Canadian government compliance with CEDAW in these areas, and the committee gave B.C. a road map for change by making a series of practical recommendations. They include:

      • taking measures to reduce the gendered wage gap;
      • increasing the minimum wage;
      • adopting a rights-based child care framework to ensure access to safe and affordable child care;
      • ensuring that social assistance rates provide an adequate standard of living;
      • intensifying efforts to ensure affordable housing options, with priority for low income women; and
      • designing policy to address the specific needs of marginalized women, including Indigenous and racialized women, women with precarious immigration status, and women with disabilities.

      The action needed in B.C. is not a mystery. We know the solutions to many of these issues and it is simply a matter of committing to implementing them. To be very clear, all levels of government in Canada have an obligation to take steps to improve women’s equality and to comply with CEDAW. It is not something that can be left to the federal government or to charitable and private responses.

      The provincial government’s failure to meet its obligations under CEDAW results in serious consequences in the everyday lives of women. Now is the time to step up and commit to change.

      Kendra Milne is the director of law reform at West Coast LEAFThis speech was delivered at the Single Mothers' Alliance event Why Your Vote Counts: Women's Equality and B.C.'s Provincial Election, addressing issues impacting women's labour-market access. These include lack of affordable quality childcare, precarious part-time work trends, low wages, lack of affordable housing and large-family stock, poverty, plus low welfare and disability rates. The event was held in partnership with the SFU Woodward's Vancity Office of Community Engagement.