Taking place overlooking British Columbia’s Burrard Inlet, in the Vancouver Convention Centre, Women Deliver, the world’s largest conference on gender equality, brought together advocacy organizations, academics, government officials, activists and journalists from around the world on June 3-6.
The event, which has been running since 2007, saw wide-ranging discussions take place, from the global rise of authoritarianism and its impact on women’s rights movements, to how women medical professionals are at the frontlines of international crises, to the need to discuss pleasure in sex education — and everything in between.
The Canadian government made two major funding announcements at the conference. The first was a $330 million pledge to support women’s organization both in Canada and abroad. The second promised to increase Canada’s international funding of women’s health to $1.4 billion by 2023, with half of the amount allotted to supporting safe abortion access and access to other reproductive health services.
Caroline Riseboro, president of Plan International Canada, told OpenCanada she sees the funding as a “truly historic” commitment. “Canada has never committed to this level of funding,” she said.
For Shelley Cardinal, the national Indigenous advisor with the Canadian Red Cross, the new funding is promising — and vital.
“I always celebrate new funding...because lots of what we’re able to do, and lots of how we’re able to contribute, is via new funding,” she said, noting that the Canadian Red Cross is active in approximately 500 Indigenous communities across the country.
She added that in the past, funding typically hasn’t kept up with the number of social emergencies and increasingly frequent natural disasters, such as the rise of tuberculosis in the North and melting ice caps.
For Areeka Riaz, a fourth-year international relations student who attended the conference for research she is doing at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Women Deliver, while full of opportunity, had its shortcomings.
“It just feels like the feminism that is being discussed here...it’s for the privileged,” she told OpenCanada, adding that the government’s other policies may conflict with those that promote gender equality.
Canada has pledged “billions [of] dollars in arms…to Saudi Arabia that are being used in Yemen,” she said. “Is your money going to help those Yemeni woman who are being killed by these [arms]? It just cancels out,” she said.
Riaz noted the funding announcement came the same week as the final report of the national inquiry on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, which said government policies over the years amounted to “genocide.”
“It’s very, very safe to assume that...this money... it’s not going to be helping the very same women who are being disenfranchised, and literally murdered by the actions of the Canadian government,” she said.
Andrea Lane, a PhD candidate at Dalhousie University, whose work focuses on gender and Canadian foreign policy, said while the funding is especially welcomed in a climate of increased attacks on abortion access, in the United States in particular, she is still hesitant to fully praise the announcement.
“The cynic in me looks at the fact...that the bulk of the funding won’t be in place until 2023, which is, of course, after the federal election,” she told OpenCanada. “It’s great to announce funding, but when you’re announcing it…four years out, you have to wonder, how much of [a] commitment is this really?”
Outside of government, many organizations also used the conference as an opportunity to network and announce new projects of their own. Plan International Canada unveiled an ambitious initiative called “Youth for Gender Equality”: a roadmap designed to peg Canada as the first country in the world to achieve gender equality by 2030.
Riseboro explained to OpenCanada that the initiative was led by young people, making it all the more exciting. “What’s really fascinating about this, it’s literally youth from all across Canada...youth that normally aren’t invited to the table to share their voice,” Riseboro said.
Vaidehee Lanke was one of 27 youth involved in drafting the list of 64 recommendations that range from education and training measures, such as calling on all levels of government, school boards and community organizations to audit and amend any public facing forms to be gender inclusive, to the prioritization of Indigenous health, addressing gender-based violence and ensuring affordable childcare.
“Our recommendations are very intersectional,” Lanke said in an interview. “We were very purposeful in recognizing that if we want gender equality in this country, it has to be for all of us. And one set of solutions is not going to work anymore.”
Starting at home
With the conference officially opening the same day as the release of the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls report, the results of the inquiry weighed heavy on the minds of conference-goers. They served as a reminder of the grim reality of women and girls within Canada, at a time when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government are emphasizing women’s rights internationally.
Both Trudeau and Minister of International Development and Women and Gender Equality Maryam Monsef attended Women Deliver and said during the conference that a “national action plan” would be implemented in response to the report.
Cardinal will take cues from the report’s findings to see how humanitarian organizations should respond.
“When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission [report] came out, we spent quite a great deal of time [on it], and it had considerable impact within the Red Cross, around our Indigenous peoples framework,” she said. “And what I know is that this report is going to inform us in a way that’s going to create action and change, just like that one did.”
Riseboro shared that the new roadmap her organization launched actively involved Indigenous groups from across the country, with their experiences built into the final recommendations: “It was so important...to have them at the table, particularly given the systematic barriers they have faced for centuries.”
A feminist foreign policy?
While Canada often uses the term feminist foreign policy, and explicitly so with its Feminist International Assistance Policy, some question whether or not Canada’s policies are in fact feminist in practice.
“Canada just renewed the third country agreement with United States,” Riaz said. “We know that there’s a disproportionate amount of women who are being forced to leave the United States, but also flee all these Central American countries...Canada [is] renewing all these very, very sketchy agreements that are making things worse for women all around the world.” Riaz called for a feminist foreign policy that would be drafted by women of colour.
Lane agrees that Canada’s current foreign policies are far from feminist.
“Our security policy, in particular our defence policy, is not at all feminist because we continue to engage in things like arm sales to Saudi Arabia and to other countries with a terrible record on women’s rights,” she said.
She pointed to the rampant cases of sexual assault within the Canadian forces themselves, as well as Canadian peacekeeping missions that are “still oriented towards our Western allies,” and in turn “neglect especially the continent of Africa, where we are super content to have black and brown bodies do the heavy lifting on peacekeeping.”
Lane’s vision for a feminist foreign policy “would actually almost completely upend the way that Canada does business on the international stage.”
When asked by OpenCanada at Women Deliver if Canada’s policies align, Monsef responded: “When it comes to our domestic policies, as well as our foreign policies, Canada has begun applying an intersectional or gendered lens to everything we do.”
While she did not address arms sales to Saudi Arabia directly, Monsef did add, “When it comes to standing up for human rights, Canada does that very clearly...whether it’s in Saudi Arabia or other corners of the world.”