The Federal Government must Renew the Women's Program!
This organization contends that the Women's Program of Status of Women Canada has been funding "anti-family, anti-life" groups, and that it has enabled them to become "agents of change to promote feminism throughout Canada".
With a new Conservative government in Ottawa, there is serious concern that this campaign might negatively influence the decision to renew the Women's Program, that will lapse in September 2006.
The abolition of the Women's program would have a devastating impact on the women's movement across Canada and in Québec. Women`s groups and the other equality-seeking organizations that have been funded by the Women`s Program throughout the years have played a vital role in Canadian democracy, ensuring that the concerns of women are brought to the attention of policy makers, and that their input be provided in the law reform process.
It is our contention that the federal government must not only renew the Women`s program, it must increase its funding as recently recommended by the Standing Committee on the Status of Women.
The Women's program (WP) has provided funding to women`s organizations and equality-seeking groups since 1973. The WP is a grants and contribution program within Status of Women Canada. Its mandate is to support action by women's organizations and other women's equality-seeking groups, thus contributing the promotion of gender equality and the full participation of women in the economic, social, cultural and political life. More specifically, the Women's Program's objectives are "to promote policies and programs that take account of gender implications, the diversity of women's perspectives and enable women to take part in decision-making; to facilitate the involvement of women's organizations in the public policy process; to increase public understanding in order to encourage action on women's equality issues; and to enhance the effectiveness of actions undertaken by women's organizations to improve the situation of women". (source)
The Women's program has an annual budget of $10 million, including some $2 million coming from the now defunct Agenda for Gender Equality. This represents a smaller budget than the Program had in 1986. In addition, since 1997, the Women's Program only funds "projects", and it does not provide core funding to sustain the ongoing activities of groups. This has had a very negative impact, and several women's groups have basically closed down because of the difficulties caused by project funding. In 2004-2005 Status of Women Canada commissioned an outside evaluation of the Women's program which included a survey of over 500 groups, and interviews with 40 key stakeholders. It was completed in August 2005; the report will be available online shortly pending translation.
In October 2004, the federal government created the Standing Committee on the Status of Women, composed of representatives from all political parties in the House of Commons. The Standing Committee has taken a special interest in the funding mechanisms for women's groups, as well as the accountability mechanisms that could ensure that the federal government complies with its obligations in favour of women's equality and commitments to conduct gender-based analysis in all major areas of its work.
The Standing Committee on the Status of Women tabled two reports - in February and in May 2005 - proposing improvements to the Women`s Program. The Standing Committee focussed in particular on the problems with project funding that "has made it difficult to sustain a women's movement in Canada and made it increasingly difficult for the women's movement to advocate on behalf of women" (May report, p.6).
In its May 2005 report, the Standing Committee recommended the introduction of a mix of core funding and project funding, as well as a 25% increase in the Women's Program budget. It also recommended that Status of Women Canada position itself as a leader in the application of the Code of Good Practice on Funding that was developed in 2003, under the Voluntary Sector Initiative. Finally, we note that the Standing Committee recommended that SWC work with other federal government departments to raise awareness about the importance of funding gender projects relevant to the funding mandates of those departments. This would certainly increase the funding base of women's equality-seeking organizations.
Despite the achievement of formal equality for women in Canadian laws and in the Constitution, and despite important progress for some women over the last 50 years, women's inequality remains deeply entrenched and systemic. As numerous studies and reports have demonstrated, sexual discrimination is ongoing at work, in the family, in political life and in our social and cultural institutions. Women from historically disadvantaged groups suffer ever deeper and more serious forms of inequality. This has been eloquently documented in the alternative report prepared in 2002 by FAFIA and its member groups to the United Nations Committee on the Eliminations of Discrimination against Women, and the joint FAFIA and NAWL alternative report that was submitted in 2006 to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
The recent report of the Expert Panel on Accountability Mechanisms for Gender Equality, entitled Equality for Women: Beyond the Illusion, released in July 2006 reiterates this sad reality:
This leads the Expert Panel to conclude that " the most important issue is no longer one of recognizing rights but of bringing about change to the social reality, economic reality and cultural reality" (p, 16)
There was undoubtedly a political momentum in favour of achieving sexual equality in the 1980's, leading up to and following the enactment of the constitutional equality rights provisions of the Canadian Charter of rights and Freedoms in 1985. This momentum was sustained well into the late 1990's, with the Fourth World conference on Women's Rights that was held in Beijing in 1995, and the adoption of the Platform for Action. To mark that event, Canada adopted the Federal Plan for Gender Equality in 1995, and then its Agenda for Gender Equality in 2000.
However, the political will to engage in concrete measures that will foster women's equality seems to be fading fast. In the 2006 Throne Speech, not one reference was made to women's equality, to gender-based analysis or to measures aimed at eliminating sexual discrimination. And despite strong representations by the Coalition for Women's Equality, there was no evidence of any form of gender-budgeting in the May 2006 budget, that had almost nothing to promote women's equality.
The ongoing under representation of women in the political institutions does not help ensure that women's issues are on the political agenda: women constitute barely one fifth of MPs in the House of Commons - and only 11% of the Conservative caucus.
Given this political context and in particular the lack of political will that seems to characterise the current federal government, women's groups will be called upon to play a more important role than ever. These groups will be called on to raise the difficult issues that impact on women's lives, propose policy changes and advocate for law reform and hold government accountable for respecting and promoting women's rights.
Now more than ever, we need to ensure that autonomous women's groups can not only survive, but thrive and develop. Now more than ever, we need federal funding for these groups. The need for governmental support of equality-seeking women's groups has been recognized on the domestic as well as the international scene.
Historically, women's groups have played a key role in convincing federal and provincial governments to amend their legislation and their policies, to stop discriminating against women. It is thanks to the dedicated work of women's groups that we have been able to achieve the following law reforms:
The Royal Commission recognized the importance of women's groups in the following terms: "Much of the credit for equal pay legislation is due to women's associations which tenaciously solicited provincial and federal governments. They have urged Canadian ratification of United Nations and International Labour Organization conventions relating to women. Estate taxes, jury duty and penal reform are but a few of the other matters on which they have approached governments. Not only have they been instrumental in bringing about reform but they have served the role of keeping governments informed of women's views on current affairs." (par. 150). The Royal Commission Report recommended that the federal government increase financial support to women's groups.
More recently, the 1995 Federal Plan for Gender Equality also recognized the importance of women's equality-seeking groups in this way: "the well-developed network of women's organizations contributes to the setting of local and national agendas for gender equality, providing direct services to women and children, and educating all sectors of the public and government on issues relevant to gender equality. The extent to which violence against women and children has become a leading area of public policy is an outstanding example of how women's voices and experiences have shaped legislation, policies and programs in recent years. Much of this contribution could not have occurred without thousands of individuals and organizations in communities donating their time and expertise to ameliorate the lives of women." (Setting the Stage for the Next Century: The Federal Plan for Gender Equality, Status of Women Canada, 1995, p. 9)
The Voluntary Sector Initiative Accord, agreed upon in 2002, also emphasized the importance of supporting the women's groups and other voluntary sector organizations. This Accord holds democracy, active citizenship, equality, diversity, inclusion and social justice as the values most relevant to the relationship between the government of Canada and the voluntary sector. In this Accord, the government explicitly recognized the "need to engage the voluntary sector in open, informed and sustained dialogue in order that the sector may contribute its experience, expertise, knowledge, and ideas in developing better public policies and in the design and delivery of programs". A Code of Good Practice on Policy Dialogue was adopted in October 2002 to ensure increased cooperation, dialogue and input from women's groups and other voluntary sector organizations at all stages of the public policy process. It proposes measures to enhance the flexibility, responsiveness and consistency of funding arrangements between the federal government and the voluntary sector.
On the occasion of the review of Canada's 5th Report under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in January 2003, Florence Levers, Coordinator of Status of Women Canada told the United Nations that women's groups play a vital role in helping the Canadian government tackle the various forms of discrimination that women face: " Canadian governments at all levels from municipal to federal are aided by an extensive network of women's equality-seeking and other non-governmental organizations, such as labour and anti-poverty groups They play a vital role in helping us to achieve our best practices in building gender equality and meeting our human rights obligations."
In May 2005 the Standing Committee on the Status of Women also underlined that women's groups play an important role in Canadian democracy, and was very critical of the fact that problems with project funding that "has made it difficult to sustain a women's movement in Canada and made it increasingly difficult for the women's movement to advocate on behalf of women" ( p.6)
There is global consensus in favour of supporting equality-seeking women's organizations.
In 1995 Beijing Platform for Action acknowledged that, "through non-governmental organizations and grass-roots organizations, women have been able to articulate their interests and concerns and have placed women's issues on the national, regional and international agendas". The document calls on governments to support and collaborate with women's groups in several different settings, to ensure a better integration of women in the political process, in the development of national machinery for the advancement of women, and in the integration of gender perspectives in legislation, public policies, programmes and projects.
In 2003, the CEDAW Committee also reminded the federal government of the importance of supporting women's groups when it recommended that women's organizations be involved in a national discussion of its report and its recommendations.
The federal government must very soon decide whether the Women's program will be renewed, or whether it will lapse and disappear. This program is essential to ensure the survival of hundreds of women's equality-seeking groups, and thus to ensure that politicians and policy makers are informed of key issues affecting women. In a society where women continue to be marginalized within key political, social and legal institutions, it is essential that a strong and autonomous women's movement exist to promote recommendations for a progressive realization of women's human rights.
We call on the federal government to renew the mandate of the Women's Program, and to substantially increase its budget. We also call on the government to ensure that not only project funding be available, but core funding to sustain the day-to-day operations of women's groups. This also means that the next federal budget must take into account the needs to fund women's groups, along with other key elements of gender-budgeting.
Contact Bev Oda, Minister Responsible for the Status of Women Canada