Martha Hall Findlay on the Status of Women Today

We asked the former Liberal MP about what kind of year it has been for women's rights.
By: /
March 8, 2013

Today is International Women's Day. OpenCanada asked Martha Hall Findlay, former Liberal MP, current Liberal leadership candidate, and a member of the Advisory Board of the Canadian Centre for Responsibility to Protect, to share her perspective on what kind of year it has been for women's rights, and Canada's efforts to empower women at home and abroad. You can also read her statement on IWD here.

Looking back on the past year, what do we have to celebrate this International Women's Day?

In Canada, the biggest reason to celebrate is the progress shown by having now six women premiers, and that women now govern about 90% of the Canadian population and economy.  This leadership by example is critical in that the more people see women in leadership roles, the more they assume that it's normal; the more women see it as possible for them to achieve; and the more people are willing to support them.

Also, we are in the middle of a Liberal leadership campaign where fully half of the candidates are women – contrast this to the 2006 leadership campaign where there was only one of us left standing in a field of eight.

(On a personal note, in the 2006 leadership campaign, I had sitting Liberal Members of Parliament say to me that although I had great qualifications and would do a great job, they would not vote for me “because Canada is not ready for a woman prime minister.” I had to point out that we’d already had one, albeit briefly – but the comments were frustrating. Needless to say, no one is saying that now – evidence that things can change, sometime rapidly.)

Where do you see progress versus a plateau or decline in women's rights?

I see some progress, but I also see a bit of a plateau and even decline in attitudes of some of our younger generations, particularly those who tend to be more affluent or more educated – there is a sense that “all is OK”, that women do indeed have equal opportunity.

Unfortunately, that may be true for some segments of our society, but not all, particularly lower-income families, or, for example, single parents (most of whom are women) who cannot provide for their families, and cannot be the role models they need to be because they can’t find daycare for their kids. We still have societal biases. We also have very strong challenges for women’s rights and women’s equality in certain ethnic and religious communities.

We still have a long way to go to achieve full equality of opportunity here in Canada for women. I worry that a sense of complacency among those who do have it will prevent them from insisting that we as a society keep working until it is fully achieved.

Is Canada doing enough to promote women's rights globally? What could we do better?

No. Although much of the rhetoric around our efforts in Afghanistan centered around women’s rights and concern for how the Taliban treats women, we are inconsistent and, at times, simply hypocritical. We ignore the situation in other countries for various and all too convenient economic or political reasons. For example, while we are rightly concerned about human rights abuses in places like China, we remain virtually silent on the plight of women in places like Saudi Arabia.

It is also frustrating that we do not do more to highlight and condemn the use of rape as a weapon of war and intimidation in so many places – Canada, at least “official” Canada, remains relatively quiet on this issue. The same is true for the many societies that still allow – indeed condone – child marriages. The same is true for so many societies and legal systems that not only do not protect women from domestic, sexual, or other violence, but instead treat the victims as the criminals to be shunned, imprisoned, or worse. India is only one country that comes to mind.

From a foreign policy perspective, the fact that John Baird is publicly critical of homophobic policies in different countries is great – but where are we on the appalling abuse of women’s human rights in too many places around the world?

Is there an individual who's efforts to promote the rights of women are particularly deserving of recognition this year?

It is too difficult, and indeed unfair, to single any one out – that would be based on what person was able to achieve more media attention than another. And although media attention is important in raising awareness, all of the women and men who struggle, quietly, some not-so-quietly, to increase women’s rights – either by their words or their actions, or both, and particularly those involved in educating new generations on the importance of real equality, need to be celebrated and applauded – and not just on one day of the year.