International Women’s Day is this Friday. What’s the state of the Canadian woman?
We’ve made some great strides in the last few decades. Women are allowed to vote, breathe the same air as men, and leave the house unaccompanied. We are legally permitted to show leg (though some people object—still), and your dad can’t sell you into a marriage. Legally, at least. Huzzah! All that bra-burning made a difference.
You certainly are better off now than your mother was at your age, but boy oh boy, is there ever a lot to do.
“We still haven’t reached gender equity,” says Saman Ahsan, executive director of Girls Action Foundation, a national charity dedicated to building girls’ and women’s skills and helping them change the status quo for women around the world. “We seem to be progressive and a liberal nation but there are a lot of challenges women face.” Women still face violence in their homes and discrimination within educational institutions. They’re still harassed, maligned, oppressed, and abused.
Ahsan says the best time to address these issues is when women are still girls, and it’s not easy being a girl either. “A quarter of grade 10 female students in Canada don’t feel safe in their schools,” Ahsan says. And that violence that women and girls face so often is closely linked to their mental health. “There are many girls who try to self harm. Girls 15 to 19 have the highest hospitalization rate for any gender.” Addressing the issue of violence against women isn’t enough on its own: there’s a panoply of complications that come with it, from their careers to self-esteem to their abilities to raise their own families.
And, oh, if you’re a woman and you do the same job as a man, you’re still only making 72-85 cents to every one of his dollars. That disparity also affects everything a woman does, from what kind of education she can get, whether she’ll be able to buy a house, and how she can take care of her children. It’s amazing the kind of advantages that come with having something between your legs. Canada is still lacking in gender equality. We’re doing worse than Latvia.
While it’s tough to be a woman in Canada, it’s even harder to be an aboriginal woman. There are 600 documented cases in Canada of missing and murdered aboriginal women in the last two decades, and there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot being done by the government to try and find out who’s doing it, or how to prevent it.
Aboriginal women are at a disadvantage in nearly every facet of their lives. Non-Aboriginal have higher life expectancies, they’re more likely to live in crowded dwellings. They’re also doing worse financially than Aboriginal men, with a median income that’s $3,000 less than men. The numbers of Aboriginal women in prison are swelling.
It’s also no easy feat to be a woman and raise children in Canada. Just ask any parent you know about finding quality childcare. “The biggest issue here is that there aren’t enough spaces, and what spaces there are, it’s really expensive,” says Jarrah Hodge, editor and founder of Gender Focus, a feminist blog based in British Columbia.
While European countries are doing better with maternity leave funding, and have smaller wage gaps, Canada is still struggling. “I characterize us as middle-of-the-road.”
Then there are those little things, those insidious ways that girls are at a disadvantage. Take, for example, a teacher who discourages a girl from getting into math and science since those are typically “male” courses.
But there has been some progress. Workplace conditions when it comes to sexual harassment have obviously improved since the 60s and 70s. You also may have noticed that in the past few years, women have been more vocal about issues that affect them, and unfair disparities between the sexes—Toronto’s SlutWalk is one example of women standing up in powerful droves. “There’s a strong base of feminist activism in Canada, and I think they’ve done a great job of drawing attention to the problems such as violence against women,” Hodge says. Talking about it is half the work—the other half is being active about it.
Canada is also doing a lot better on abortion rights—particularly compared to our neighbours in the south. But that too depends on where you are in the country. It’s a lot easier to find a safe abortion clinic in Toronto than in, say, New Brunswick, where you need two doctors to approve it, or in P.E.I., where you’ll need to travel and pay out of pocket for the procedure. “And there’s still politicians trying to open the debate,” Hodge says.
Whatever you may have heard, feminism can’t be dead. There’s a lot of work to do, and it’s up to girls and women to get the ball rolling so that your daughters and nieces and granddaughters are doing better than you are right now. “We fall into the trap of thinking of girls as victims or beneficiaries,” Ahsan says. “The first step is to realize that girls are neither victims nor are they passive. They’re agents of change.” It’s important for girls to be leaders in their communities to bring about change for other girls and women.
Hodge says that government commitment is also required. “Women and their allies need to speak up on these issues,” she says. “And I think electing some more women wouldn’t hurt.”
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