Winning with Women

The discussion surrounding International Women's Day often focuses on the “Global South,” but Canada is not immune from gender discrimination and violence, says Mina Mawani.
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March 6, 2014
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A few months ago, many people were shocked at new research from the World Health Organization (WHO) that found one in three females across the globe experience physical or sexual violence.

Not surprisingly, most of the commentary focused on the situation facing women in the “Global South.” According to the report, almost half of all women living in Africa experience violence. In the face of a catastrophic statistic like this, it’s tempting to brush aside the violence experienced by women in “developed” countries like Canada as ‘not that bad.’

But as we approach March 8, International Women’s Day, it is the perfect time for a reality check. Get ready for a few surprises.

If you’re a typical Canadian, you probably think gender discrimination is a thing of the past. But unfortunately, women and girls in Canada still face disproportionate levels of violence and poverty simply because of their gender. And we all pay the price—whether we know it or not.

According to research from the World Health Organization, 29.8 percent of women in the Americas experience physical or sexual violence. That’s bad enough, but the only major Canadian study to ever ask women about their lifetime experience of violence (conducted by Statistics Canada over twenty years ago) put the real figure for our country at closer to 50 percent.

Every night in Canada, approximately 6,000 women and children are forced to sleep in a shelter because it’s not safe for them to be at home. In just one year, 473,900 Canadian females over the age of 15 experienced a sexual assault.

Moreover, a recent study funded by the Canadian Women’s Foundation (full disclosure: I serve as President and CEO for the Foundation) discovered that every hour of every day, a woman in Alberta is a victim of domestic violence. This finding was so startling, the Province of Alberta decided to invest in further research and spent the following two years developing a new policy framework designed to prevent family violence.

Last year, the Foundation funded another study that found 67 percent of Canadians personally know a woman who has been sexually or physically assaulted. If you’re like most Canadians, you find this completely unacceptable. And, if you’re like most Canadians, you’ll be surprised to learn you personally pay a price for this violence.

Collectively, domestic violence costs Canadians roughly $7.4 billion a year. According to a report from the Department of Justice, that’s the price we collectively spend on everything from police to children’s mental health, from emergency room visits to funerals. Since the full costs are so hard to calculate, the report calls this “a conservative estimate.” The highest price, of course, is paid by the victims in legal costs, lost wages, pain and suffering, and loss of life. Their children, friends, and families suffer too.

Here’s another surprise: Experts estimate that thousands of women and girls are trafficked in Canada and forced into prostitution by people who financially gain from their sexual exploitation.

Over the last few years, the Canadian Women’s Foundation has been receiving more and more funding applications from community groups trying to help trafficked girls and women. In response, the Foundation started allocating more grants for this work. We also took action to learn more and develop long-term solutions. Last year, we launched a National Task Force on Trafficking of Women and Girls in Canada. Our Task Force includes police officers, academics, front-line workers, and women who have been trafficked and it has traveled across Canada, meeting with more than 150 survivors and 250 organizations.

In the process, the Foundation has learned that traffickers are both extremely organized and methodical. They are also very good at exploiting vulnerable segments of our population: girls who have been abused, women who struggle with addictions, poor women with few economic alternatives, and women who face severe discrimination. The tools of a trafficker include deception, coercion, and violence. At first, they may present themselves as a boyfriend. Perhaps they promise a false job opportunity and a better life. Sometimes, they even abduct their chosen victim. Once under a trafficker’s control, girls and women are forced to exchange sex for drugs, shelter, food, or protection. Trafficking is big business: these criminals can receive as much as $280,000 each year for each girl or woman they exploit.

With that said, prostitution that is freely chosen by adult women who are not being coerced or controlled should not be confused with forced prostitution, which is blatant sexual exploitation of underage girls and marginalized women. Women and girls who are trafficked have no choice and no voice. Most girls are first trafficked at the age of thirteen. Simply put, trafficking is sexualized violence against girls and women and it is a tragic reality in Canada.

Ready for another surprising Canadian truth? In 2013, Canada ranked a poor 20th on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report. That put us behind Latvia, Cuba, Lesotho, and South Africa. We used to be doing better: in 2006, we ranked 14th.

A report from the Conference Board of Canada supported this finding: they say our gender income gap earns us a poor “C” rating compared to other countries. Women still earn only 71 cents on the dollar, even when they work the same number of hours and have the same education and experience. Women also make up the majority of people who earn minimum wage (66 percent) and who work part time (70 percent). Although more women graduate from university, they are not earning as much as men: female graduates earn an average of $62,800, males earn $91,800.

What explains these numbers?  It’s true most women continue to choose traditional female careers even though they pay much less than traditional male jobs. But why are ‘women’s jobs’ considered to be worth so much less than ‘men’s jobs?’ Is a plumber really worth that much more than a nurse?

And yes, in order to juggle their domestic responsibilities, many women do choose part-time, contract, or temporary work. In doing so, they end up paying the price for Canada’s lack of affordable childcare and family-friendly workplace policies.

This price, in the Foundation’s estimation, is simply too high. Their lower earning power mean that women are much more likely to be poor if they are single, separated, divorced, or widowed. Tragically, it also means that many abused women stay with their partner because they believe that if they leave, they will be forced to raise their children in poverty. These fears, unfortunately, are well-founded: women with children who leave a partner are more than five times likely to live in poverty than if they stay.

Indeed, far more single-parent mothers than fathers are poor (21 percent to 7 percent). In Canada, this means that 350,000 women are raising their children alone in poverty. That translates into thousands of children who are more likely to be sick, more likely to drop out of school, and subsequently more likely to contribute to the number of vulnerable youths. It also means that thousands of families need sustained government assistance and thousands of adult women can’t fully contribute to society.

Here’s one final surprise. Despite an inexorable rise in inequality, despite the daily violence experienced by so many women and girls in Canada, despite the appalling reality of trafficking, and despite the economic struggles faced by so many single mothers, I am actually optimistic.

There is tremendous momentum for positive change, much of it due to the thousands of women and girls from around the world who are finding the courage to share their stories and work together for change. The push for change is also happening right here in Canada. The Canadian Women’s Foundation has thousands of supporters who find the status quo completely unacceptable: they passionately want to help women and girls to move out of violence and out of poverty.

If you want to change the world, helping women and girls is the most intelligent investment you can make. As former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said, when you invest in women, “...the benefits can be seen immediately: families are healthier; they are better fed; their income, savings and reinvestment go up. And what is true of families is true of communities and, eventually, of whole countries.”

At the Canadian Women’s Foundation, this is called this “the ripple effect.” When you help a woman to escape violence, she and her children are safer. But her children are also less likely to experience or perpetrate violence when they grow up, and likewise their own children. When you help a woman to move out of poverty, her children become healthier—both physically and mentally—and do better in school. Not only that, her whole family is less reliant on government assistance and she is able to pay more in taxes and contribute more to society.

International Women’s Day is a wonderful opportunity to perform a reality check on the state of women and girls right here in Canada and to renew our commitment to keep working for change.

It’s time to invest in the strength of women and the dreams of girls.

Because when we do, we all win.