Thursday, March 8

War on sexism has yet to be won

We must continue to protest the fact that Ottawa can find billions of dollars to fight an unjust war abroad, but refuses to find even millions for us broads at home

Being a feminist in this era of Girls Gone Wild and cell phone porn downloading can be seriously disheartening at times.

To make matters worse, there is the spectre of Stephen Harper lusting after a majority government, with the help of his closest female advisers, R.E.A.L. Women, a right-wing anti-women think tank, who are proud of their motto: “women's rights, but not at the expense of human rights.”

This bizarre group erroneously argues that women are, despite being 52 per cent of the population, a special interest lobbying to suppress men's rights. R.E.A.L Women's political line, however, flies in the face of the lived experience of most “real” women in this country. Unfortunately, the actions of the Harper government are having real negative impacts on Canada's women, which gives this year's International Women's Day (IWD) added significance.

IWD has a rich history, emerging out of the struggles of working class women in New York in the early 1900s. A century later, women in countries all over the globe are still fighting for their liberation. It has been 30 years since the United Nations officially designated today, March 8, as International Women's Day. Shamefully, Canada has still not lived up to its UN obligations for achieving women's equality.

Before Stephen Harper became Prime Minister, he was consistently polling dreadfully among women, who rightfully found him to be untrustworthy and his “Reform-Alliance” background downright frightening. In a last ditch effort days before the election to appease women's fears, Harper promised that he was “ready to support women's human rights” and he agreed, “that Canada has to do more to meet its international obligations to women's equality.” If elected he claimed he would, “take concrete and immediate measures, as recommended by the United Nations, to ensure that Canada fully upholds its commitments to women.”

Of course, most of us knew that Harper would not transform himself into a women's lib-er or, more appropriately in his case, a “born-again” feminist. But I think few women really knew exactly how tightly Steve had his fingers crossed as he made this infamous promise. The Conservative Party and its minority government has reigned for just over a year now, and it has been a rocky year for women's equality, with Harper turning back the clock on many hard fought gains.

Just a few months ago, he cut five million dollars from the Ministry of Status of Women Canada, which will lead to the closure of 12 regional Status of Women offices across the country at the end of this month. Just as egregious, Harper has taken women's equality out of the mandate of the ministry.

The “e-word” has been replaced with “participation,” and the terms and conditions of funding have been changed to exclude feminist groups that would use the money to research, lobby and advocate on behalf of women for such things as a national child care program that actually meets the needs of working mothers.

The Conservatives, of course, scrapped the possibility of such a program, replacing it with a monthly stipend that would barely cover a day's worth of babysitting. Further, while women still make almost 30 per cent less than men and are more likely to be living in or on the brink of poverty, women's groups will be unable to lobby for their basic right of pay equity.

This year's International Women's Day press release from Status of Women stated that the government was concerned about the level of violence against women and girls. However, the new terms and conditions of funding would make it impossible for feminist groups to lobby and advocate for an end to violence against women. With UN statistics showing that one out of three women are victims of male violence, there is no clearer example of why we still need a strong women's movement.

In Vancouver, IWD events/festivities were kicked off with a picket against the Minister responsible for Status of Women Canada, Bev Oda. The Minister has recently achieved Youtube infamy (with sound) as the Heritage Minister who billed taxpayers for a weekend splurge of limousines so she could arrive at the Juno Awards in style. When Oda is not pretending to live like a rock star on the public dime, she has been the mouthpiece for restraint and cuts to women's programs, claiming to be cutting only excess bureaucracy out of Status of Women Canada.

In January, as women's groups fought to get public attention to the cuts, women in Vancouver occupied the Status of Women office and demanded a meeting with Oda, who eventually agreed to meet with representatives from different feminist groups from BC and the Yukon. The women made passionate presentations, arguing that women's equality was still a worthy and necessary goal, and sharing their front line experiences as feminists, anti-violence workers, anti-poverty activists, anti-racist activists, disability activists and more. In the end, Oda simply re-stated the government line that there will be no changes to the Conservatives' cuts. Faced with such intransigence, women will have to keep up our agitation on this International Women's Day and beyond.

We must continue to protest the fact that Ottawa can find billions of dollars to fight an unjust war abroad, but refuses to find even millions for us broads at home. Harper has justified the occupation of Afghanistan under the guise and rhetoric of liberating the long-suffering women of that country. The sad fact, however, is that there are a higher percentage of women in the warlord-filled Parliament of Afghanistan than in the House of Commons.

And that's just one reason why the century-old war on sexism has yet to be won. Women around the world need to stay the course, and smoke out patriarchy wherever it hides and plots against us, starting at 24 Sussex Drive.

Gina Whitfield has an M.A. in Sociology and Equity Studies from OISE at the U. of T. She's a feminist activist and photographer and a contributing editor at Seven Oaks Magazine. This is the first of a regular column that Gina will be contributing to

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