Thursday, July 12

Women's action group struggles to plot future

A lack of funding has curtailed the once vocal Victoria Status of Women Action Group, but its remaining members aren't about to be silenced

Their "office" is now a seven-by-seven-foot storage locker on Fort Street.

Their funding from federal and provincial governments to fight for women's equality totals zip.

SWAG -- the once-feisty Victoria Status of Women Action Group -- might even drop "action" from its name. It sounds too protest-prone for insurance brokers and brings up bad memories for people who associate it with mid-1990s infighting.

These are tough times for one of the oldest women's organizations in Canada.

They still have their voice mail -- thanks to a donation -- but it can take a week for call-backs, a far cry from the 25 to 50 calls it used to field in a week.

Late last year, the federal government cut funding for political advocacy on the part of federally funded Status of Women groups, and a dozen offices across Canada closed, including Victoria's. SWAG got $42,000 in its last 18 months of funding -- enough for its office on View Street and a report called An Examination of How Women Would Benefit from a Guaranteed Livable Income. Neither expenditure would qualify under recently re-instated funding guidelines.

"It's horrible that it's come to this -- that we're in a locker -- but it can also be a time for us to look at what our focus is going to be," says SWAG's former co-ordinator, Cindy L'Hirondelle, a 45-year-old mother of three grown children.

Since it was founded in 1971, SWAG has put its energies into many fronts, from monitoring court cases to lesbian rights and Take Back the Night marches. Now it's figuring out how to redefine its focus, its name and its fundraising.

Come September, women of Victoria -- SWAG members and non-members -- will be invited to ponder three questions central to its survival:
* What do you see as the problems?
* What do you want to see happen?
* What are you willing to do to see that happen?

"One thing there's not a shortage of is lots of people coming forward saying, 'You should do this and you should do that,' " says L'Hirondelle, now a member of SWAG's board of directors.

"There is no shortage of good ideas, but there is a shortage of people making a commitment to seeing those things happen."

Funding cuts are only one reason for the group's lower profile.

Forty years into feminism, do a lot of people think women are equal?

"There is that perception," acknowledges L'Hirondelle. But in her view, it's only a perception, although there's no denying more women have made it, economically, than ever before.

These days, systemic sex discrimination has given ground to poor personal choices to explain women's problems or poverty.

"A lot of women find out how difficult things are for them if they end up having a child on their own," she says.

Other feminist activists are choosing causes with more immediate rewards rather than big-picture poverty -- SWAG's recent over-riding focus -- and younger women are few and far between.

"I'm the only young one I've met," says Meschum Prey, 25, a pet-care worker who is the daughter of a board member. Prey is disappointed about that, wondering whether other young women think there's nothing left to fight for or that there's no way they can make a difference.

Susan Noakes, president of Together Against Poverty, calls the demise of SWAG due to cutbacks "a shock to the community on many levels." She notes that women, whether single parents or seniors, face consistently higher poverty rates than men, a lack of affordable child care and housing.

SWAG speaks on behalf of women "and as long as there are inequities for women there still needs to be a voice for that."

L'Hirondelle asks why there are three times more men earning more than $100,000 a year than women, and far more women than men earning less than $30,000.

"Does that sound equal to you?"

But there's no longer an office where she can help a mother of four denied income assistance and in extreme crisis.

"We were quite effective at that," L'Hirondelle recalls. When she recently checked SWAG's voice mail, there was a call about a woman kicked out of her marital home, completely oblivious to her rights.

"We need to keep going, more so now than before, I believe," says Debie O'Connell, the B.C. rep for the National Action Committee on the Status of Women as well as a SWAG board member. She won't give up, even though she's challenged by a serious neurological disease.

Another issue SWAG faces is the f-word -- feminism -- "which to a lot of people is a dirty word," says O'Connell. "Which is a shame. Because when you think about it, it really is humanism.

When you're benefiting the women of the community, you're in turn benefiting the children, which in turn benefits the community."

SWAG also went through a very public internal upheaval in the mid-'90s, when a dozen disillusioned supporters asked the province to investigate concerns about abuse of power.

Today's remaining SWAG members -- most of whom are low-income -- haven't yet begun to raise funds, a major challenge. Even an offer of support from a charitable group bit the dust because SWAG is a non-profit group, not a registered charity, and the donation would put the donor's charitable status in jeopardy.

Likely no one was happier with the original $5-million funding cut than REAL Women of Canada, the traditional-values lobby group that had deplored funding feminists for decades. At the time of the cuts, REAL vice-president Gwendolyn Landolt was quoted as saying: "If a group can't support itself and its lobbying activities across the country, then it just isn't a grassroots organization and shouldn't be funded by the taxpayer."

Conversely, the move was criticized not just by opposition parties in Parliament but by Amnesty International and the National Council of Women of Canada, established in 1893.

New federal guidelines for re-instated $5 million in funding exclude research, polling, lobbying of any level of government and full-funding for any particular project. "Deliverables" are the new currency -- for instance, giving 200 women a certain kind of training. For-profit groups are also welcome to apply.

"What the Conservative government and their supporters argue is that doing systemic advocacy is political, so fund it yourself," says L'Hirondelle. "But what if your membership is . . . about 90 per cent low-income? How much energy do you ask from people to go out and do all this free work so that we can get this organization going again?

"Especially when that means all the unpaid work cuts into your ability to do paid work."
The executive director of the Victoria Women's Sexual Assault Centre hopes SWAG will revive as a voice for women.

"The critical function that they served that is missing now in our community is really a lobbying voice for women in terms of what's happening on the policy or legal level," says Sandy McLellan, who was involved with SWAG many years ago.

"When you look at the business sector and government, women are still really under-represented in positions of power," adds Jody Paterson, outgoing executive director of Prostitutes Empowerment Education and Resource Society.

As a reporter 10 years ago, Paterson found SWAG to be on the cutting edge of women's issues. "They always had something to say. Then suddenly they disappeared . . . I'd like to see them come back to the powerhouse I remember them being."
- - -
Some policies of the Victoria Status of Women Action Group
- Widest possible choices for child care -- including family members as well as non-profit day cares
- Immediate implementation of universal guaranteed livable income -- something not even the Canadian Labour Congress supports
- Pro-choice on abortion
- Support for women's right to choose their own sexuality
- Acceptance of transgendered women
- Anti-racism and pro-cultural diversity
SWAG facts
SWAG membership: About 90, down from 400 a decade ago, but up from 30 in 2001.
Membership fee: Free to $25
Phone: 383-7322

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