Choosing to challenge

International Women’s Day 2021 comes as we enter our second year of living with a pandemic.

Over that year, an unprecedented light has been shone on both women’s ongoing inequalities and violence against women.

Women in Canada were the first to lose their jobs when businesses shut down or changed their operations to meet public health requirements. According to a July report by RBC, women’s position in the workplace has been set back by 30 years, with job losses totalling 1.5 million in the first two months of the pandemic:

“In a matter of months, the COVID-19 pandemic knocked women’s participation in the labour force down from a historic high to its lowest level in over 30 years. . . Worryingly, the outsized role women play in the industries hardest hit by the recession together with uncertainties about availability of school and childcare mean this lost ground won’t easily be recovered.” 

A follow-up report in November noted that women “continue to retreat from the workforce even as Canadian men more than make up for ground lost early in the pandemic.”

The rate of violence against women has escalated due, in no small measure, to stay at home orders that mean women with abusive partners have no opportunity to escape them, even for short periods of time. This is a global crisis, as has been noted by the United Nations, which has called violence against women the shadow pandemic.

Women have had little privacy to access legal advice; court proceedings have been limited and have moved online; supervised access centres have been closed at various times throughout the year. Abusive men have been increasingly released on bail or given reduced or non-custodial sentences, in order to curb the spread of the pandemic in jails. Shelters have had to reduce their capacity to comply with physical distancing rules, giving women fewer options.

Even in this very privileged country, in just one year, women have lost gains for which we and those before us fought hard.

Then and now

It is impossible for me not to compare IWD this year with IWD 2020, when I was in San Miguel. I joined several hundred people in a loud walk through the city’s streets, as we called for women’s equality and an end to violence against women. There was rage, but there was also joy and determination. Hundreds of thousands of women across that country went on strike, staying home to make the point that the country could not function without the often invisible and even more often unacknowledged work done by women.

This year, there will be no in-person gatherings because of COVID-19. However, women are a creative bunch, and there are many interesting things happening across the country today and throughout the month.

I participated in my first IWD 2021 event last week, when my daughter, her partner and I walked the Secret 3 km Marathon, in support of women’s athletics in Afghanistan. Intended to be virtual this year, we were able to take it to the street because our community is green. We kept our distance, but we were still able to have a visit, get some exercise on a mild afternoon and feel a little bit connected to women around the world who were walking — virtually — with us.

Today, I will be speaking at an event being live streamed on Facebook by the Women’s Sexual Assault Centre of Renfrew County. Then, I will join the staff team at Luke’s Place, which is gathering via Zoom for an IWD lunch and women’s history bingo game.

Even apart, we can find ways to be together.

Looking forward

Thanks to the pandemic, nothing is as it was, but we can and must still look forward. The 2019 platform of the federal Liberal Party promised the development of a national action plan (NAP) to address gender-based violence (GBV), a commitment confirmed by the Prime Minister in his December 6 remarks last year:

“Gender-based violence has no place in our communities or our country, and the Government of Canada is continuing to implement a national action plan to address it.”

To this end, and with funding from the Department of Women and Gender Equality (WAGE), Women’s Shelters Canada has convened 40 national experts, who will gather in working groups to tackle GBV in four themes identified by WAGE: prevention, support for survivors and their families, responsive legal and justice systems and social infrastructure:

“The working groups will develop recommendations that, together, will provide the framework for an intersectionally informed 10-year NAP . . . This is an unprecedented moment for the Government of Canada to strengthen its commitments to social equity and justice. Today’s response to the National Action Plan is one that will impact the next generation and shape the future of our country.”

I am honoured to be one of the 40 working on this initiative: my colleague and friend Deepa Mattoo, the Executive Director of Toronto’s Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic and I co-chair the legal and justice working group. With the eight other members of our group, we are deep into discussions to identify the most pressing justice issues to be addressed in a national action plan. Our recommendations are due by mid-April, so stay tuned to see where our work takes us. And, be ready to call on all political parties to implement and support the NAP.

But because today is International Women’s Day, I will set my work aside earlier than usual so I can close out IWD 2021 by bringing my year full circle. I am getting together with the friend who introduced me to San Miguel many years ago to snack on empanadas and sip Mexican hot chocolate while we watch the Ser Mujer IWD concert via zoom, live from San Miguel. Not quite the same as being in the streets, but it will do for this year.

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