08/27/2015 01:01 EDT | Updated 08/27/2016 05:59 EDT

Yes, Women's Equality Is Still a Political Issue

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Close up of women's outstretched hands

A fearless attempt by the Up For Debate campaign to bring Canada's political leaders to the table to talk about women's rights and gender equality has had to shift. It's a good thing they have, because we can't let another 30 years slip by without this conversation.

The trouble we're seeing is that with a phrase like "women's issues" a lot of Canadians, even women, aren't sure what it means. They'd argue -- as many of our politicians have on various occasions -- that efforts to improve things like the economy, health care, public safety, social security and so on provide benefits to all Canadians, and that there's no need to divide us up by gender. They'd argue that women have already won full equality in Canada.

If only that were so. You can't take a group that has been profoundly affected by inequality for centuries and presume that declaring them equal fixes everything. Or "equal enough" as we have hysterically heard lately; as though equal is some kind of a relative measure.

When we ask our political leaders to talk about issues affecting women what we're asking for is a conversation about the unseen and largely unacknowledged inequalities that affect girls and women throughout their lives. We're talking about all the things that still impede the progress of half of Canada's population solely because they're born female. I've lived across this planet, and while that reality of discrimination may seem more blatant elsewhere, it remains devastatingly true in my own country.

I have a daughter. Like every Canadian woman, she's growing up in a country where to be female is to be overrepresented in poorly paid part-time work; under-represented at every level of authority and power; and so devalued as a worker that virtually any sector that attracts a female workforce pays less than sectors dominated by males.

Nearly 70 per cent of part-time workers in Canada are women, a statistic that hasn't changed in three decades. Average annual earnings for women are 28 per cent less than for men -- and that hasn't changed much over the years, either.

Being born female in Canada also puts her at 10 times the risk of sexualized violence, or of being killed by her spouse. Girls and women are the victims in 92 per cent of police-reported sexual assaults in Canada. If you're a woman who also belongs to another disadvantaged population -- aboriginal, visible minority, disabled -- the grim statistics get even worse.

We all need to wake up and see that talking about women is not about randomly selecting some group for special treatment. It's about correcting a major systemic wrong that harms half our population and limits Canada's economic and social potential.

Countries that are really addressing gender inequality are lifting the lid on their systems to identify the policies, practices, taxes, and laws that inadvertently discriminate against women. Oxfam has stood by women's organizations that challenged their governments to be better and build more equitable countries. And we'll do it again.

We have to keep up our determination to put women's issues at the center of the election. Even if it is not the format we wanted, it will still be a first in the last 30 years.

Four parties have agreed to an alternative debate proposal to do one-on-one interviews. We need to urge all federal party leaders to come to the table, and stay at the table. Not just for this election, but for however many elections it takes to start correcting these historic wrongs.

Julie Delahanty became executive director of Oxfam Canada in 2014, bringing with her more than 20 years of experience in international development, gender equality and human rights. A published author, Julie has written extensively on issues of gender and employment, genes, garments and globalization.


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