International Women's Day 2012 fell at a particularly poignant moment as we also celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canada's roadmap for the building of a just and egalitarian society. As we celebrate the Charter -- and its transformative effect on the protection of women's rights -- it is important to recognize the singular role of the women's movement in the enactment of the Charter, advocacy which resulted in the present wording of sections 15 and 28, the equality provisions of which we are all beneficiaries.
Section 15 -- the equality clause -- provided only for the principle "equality before the law" in its original draft form. Women's groups, mindful of the limited protection this afforded under the predecessor Canadian Bill of Rights -- and apprehensive that the courts might continue this line of narrow jurisprudence -- fought for and secured the enhancement of this provision to read that all persons are "equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination."
Similarly, the women's movement was also responsible for the inclusion of section 28, that "notwithstanding anything in this Charter, the rights and freedoms referred to in it are guaranteed equally to male and female persons." Again, the women's movement simply did not trust that even the equality rights protection in section 15, standing alone, would suffice, and sought to guarantee the equality of women and men could not be diminished through any other interpretation of the Charter.
As we celebrate International Women's Week, we should recall and reaffirm the achievements of the women's movement with respect to the enactment of sections 15 and 28 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the attending rights and equalities that these sections have entrenched and enshrined.
But while the Charter is promotive and protective of equality rights in general, and women's rights in particular, we need to ensure that these rights are not diminished or ignored, from whatever quarter, for whatever purpose.
Indeed, over the past six years, the government has dismantled or significantly reduced a series of programs -- if not also institutional frameworks -- that promote women's equality. These include the Court Challenges Program -- intended to protect minority and language rights -- which was abolished in 2006; the comprehensive Federal-Provincial Early Learning and Childcare Agreements, which have been replaced by ineffective and inadequate tax credits; and funding for maternal health initiatives in developing countries, which has become more restrictive under the present government.
Moreover, government and civic support groups for gender equality have had their funding and mission scopes limited in recent years. For example, Status of Women Canada has been particularly targeted by the Conservative government, which in 2006 shut down 12 of 16 regional offices operated by the department, and sought to further constrain its budget and operations.
The clarion call of the United Nations World Conference on Human Rights was that "women's rights are human rights and there are no human rights that do not include the rights of women." Indeed, as one who was present at the conference, I witnessed how the women's movement energized the cause of human rights as a whole.
The government should commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Charter -- and the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which just passed -- by reinstating and reaffirming as a matter of principle and policy a comprehensive strategy for the promotion and protection of women's rights. In particular, the government should:
- Restore the Court Challenges Program so as to help secure equal access to equality rights and minority language rights under the Charter;
- Reinstate the Early Learning and Childcare Agreements that would make childcare affordable while enhancing women's participation in the workforce;
- Enhance commitment to maternal health initiatives in developing countries so as to support access to reproductive health services;
- Commit to increased support for Status of Women Canada, the only federal department agency that is formally committed to promoting women's full participation in economic, social, and democratic life in Canada;
- Enhance equal voice by increasing the number of women appointed to public office and reducing barriers that prevent from running as candidates for election;
- Secure women's right to pay equity by ensuring equal pay for work of equal value overseen by a federally-appointed Commissioner for Gender Equality;
- Implement the unanimous resolution of the House of Commons to establish a national prevention strategy to combat violence against women, while addressing in particular the endemic violence against aboriginal women and girls;
- Mainstream gender analysis in decision-making, particularly in the budgetary process;
- Establish a comprehensive and coordinated affordable and adequate housing program, which takes into account the needs of single older women, single mothers, aboriginal women, and immigrant women, populations which constitute a significant portion of the homeless;
- Combat international violence against women, including, in particular, the trafficking of women and girls -- the new global slave trade and the fastest growing criminal industry in the world -- while addressing also the growing crisis of violence against women in armed conflict; and
- Combat gender inequality in general, and the incidence of poverty in particular, by addressing the intersectional dimension of disadvantaged women -- the unique circumstances and systemic inequality of ethno-cultural, racialized, aboriginal, immigrant, and disabled women;
Nellie McClung, one of Canada's earliest advocates in the area of women's rights, once argued that "people must know the past to understand the present, and to face the future." As the 101st International Women's Day just passed -- in the 30th anniversary year of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms -- we should remember the singular achievements of the women's movement in the enactment of sections 15 and 28 of the Charter, while recommitting to securing women's rights and equality both at home and abroad.