Are we there yet?

Today, November 25th, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, kicks off 16 Days of Activism to End Gender-Based Violence.  This campaign originated 31 years ago at the first Women’s Global Leadership Institute (WGLI). Working from its slogan “educate, empower, lead,” the WGLI’s goal is to inspire and train women to become successful leaders in their communities and workplaces. It offers university, corporate and community programs to support women through mentorship, increasing community engagement, personal development and more.

The theme of this year’s 16 days of activism is “UNITE! To end violence against women and girls by 2030.” The campaign encourages “global action to increase awareness, galvanise advocacy efforts and share knowledge and innovations to end violence against women and girls once and for all.” It calls on governments, those in the development sector, civil society generally, women’s organizations, young people, the private sector and media to join forces in addressing what it calls “the global pandemic of violence against women and girls.”

A pandemic of a different kind

I’m as tired of the word pandemic as the next person; but it’s a good word to describe the situation faced by women around the world. Millions upon millions of women are living in situations of violence.

According to the United Nations, violence against women and girls is the most widespread and pervasive human rights violation worldwide, affecting more than one in three women and girls. That’s more than 736 million women and girls.

A woman or girl is killed by someone in her family every 11 minutes. In the roughly two hours it took me to write this, at least 10 women and girls were killed by a family member, and in the time it likely took you to read it, one woman or girl was killed.

And it’s getting worse, not better. More women report feeling unsafe than before COVID-19. We know why: women’s safety was not a top priority as public health decisions were made about curbing the spread of COVID-19;  stay at home orders meant there was no escape for women living with abusive partners; women lost economic ground through the pandemic because of job loss and increased family responsibilities.

In Ontario, the number of femicides jumped by more than 20 between 2020, when 37 women were killed and 2021, when the total was 58. This year, 43 women had been killed in acts of femicide by October.

It’s about more than violence

Women face other challenges to our equality.

It will take years, if not decades, to regain the economic ground lost over the course of the pandemic.

The backlash against women’s sexual and reproductive rights was well illustrated in the decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v Wade earlier this year. Women in Canada who need an abortion face a different challenge: while getting one is not illegal, anyone living in small, rural or remote communities may not be able to find an abortion provider without travelling long distances.  

Ontario was the last jurisdiction to sign on to the federal government’s $10 a day child care plan and, according to the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care, its approach is “halting and shambolic.”

The lack of affordable housing as winter approaches is at crisis levels; women hoping to leave an abuser have almost no possibility of finding housing that is safe as well as affordable.

And yet, there is hope

It didn’t take long for states to fight back against the Roe decision. In August, Kansas voted to preserve the right to abortion in the state’s constitution. Three states – California, Michigan and Vermont – followed suit in the mid-term elections earlier this month, while two others – Kentucky and Montana – pushed back against the Roe decision more cautiously. Is it enough? No, but these are important wins that will inspire more.

Doug Ford withdrew the bill he thought would stop educational workers – most of whom are women – from striking, because of overwhelming support for the workers and open criticism from the federal government for his strategy. Of course, this doesn’t mean the workers will get what they deserve, but it does mean Ford has been sent a message that he can’t just do whatever he wants.

On November 9th, Women and Gender Equality Minister Marci Ien announced a 10-year national action plan to end gender-based violence, in an agreement with all provinces and territories except Quebec. The plan does not have the vigour many of us had been hoping to see, but it is, perhaps, a small step in the right direction.

In my travels around the province – mostly in small and rural communities – I have seen and heard the enthusiasm people have to work for implementation of the recommendations from the Renfrew County Inquest. There is a lot of work ahead to persuade the provincial government, in particular, of the importance of taking action, but with so many diverse voices speaking up about it, I have some hope.

One day at a time

It’s hard not to feel cynical and discouraged, but as Carsie Blanton says:

“The biggest hurdle between us and a kinder world us our own cynicism. “

Let’s opt for hope and action, instead. As the 16 days of activism to end GBV get underway, think of something you can do end gender-based violence each day. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Read or go to see Miriam Toew’s Women Talking for a glimpse at what women can accomplish when we talk and strategize together
  • Call out misogyny when you see it around you
  • Engage a co-worker, neighbour, friend or family member in a conversation about ending male violence
  • Tweet one of the inquest recommendation infographics every day
  • Reach out to a women’s organization in your community to ask how you can support their work

We might be surprised to see where small acts rooted in hopefulness can take us.

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