Every 8 March, the world celebrates International Women’s Day (IWD) with the goal to advance gender equality for all women and girls. This year’s theme defined by UN Women is “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow”, a call to action for gender equality within the context of the climate crisis.
IWD is an opportunity to reflect on the current state of women’s rights and the trajectory of gender-equality in Canadian society and policy.
The United Nations (UN) acknowledges the progress society has made in meeting Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5: Gender Equality—more girls go to school and are not forced into early marriages, more women hold positions of power and leadership, more laws are being put in place to advance gender equality and support women’s rights.
Women and Gender Equality (WAGE) states that Canada “has taken concrete steps to support SDG 5, including the Prime Minister’s appointment of a gender-balanced Cabinet, Canada’s first-ever Gender Statement as part of a federal budget in budget 2017, the launch of a federal strategy to prevent and address gender-based violence, and strong investments in gender equality through budget 2018 and 2019”. Other achievements worth celebrating include:
The International Olympic Committee adding 18 new events to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, making them the most gender-balanced games in history, with women constituting up to 49 per cent of Olympians.
The Canadian Government’s establishment of an Indigenous Women’s Circle in May 2018 to engage Indigenous elders in policymaking to address the intersectional barriers that Canadian women face in modern society.
Despite these successes, women—generally more economically susceptible to environmental crises—were much likelier to be negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Twice as many women as men lost their jobs in March 2020 and were forced to take unpaid work (called ‘she-sessions’), while men doubled the rate of women who found work when the economy began to reopen in May 2020. The Canadian Women’s Foundation reported that ten times more women than men have fallen out of the labour force since 2020, and for those in the labour force, women earned just 76.8 cents for every dollar made by men.
Women represented the majority of first responders during the pandemic, augmenting their socioeconomic stress—many did not have access to day care or out-of-home schools due to health restrictions.
COVID-19 also created a “shadow pandemic” of gender-based violence, with a decrease in women’s shelter staff and capacity due to health authority restrictions that left victims of gender-based crimes trapped at home. There was a 20 per cent increase in demand for shelter intake in Ontario alone, and a 400 per cent increase in calls to the British Columbia Battered Women’s Support Services hotline. Some 160 women and girls were killed by violence in 2020 in Canada, an almost ten per cent increase from 2019. COVID-19 definitely highlighted the importance of joining the conversation and deciding on an immediate action plan to end gender-based violence in every community during the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence (#16Days), a campaign led by UN Women that takes place internationally from 25 November to 10 December.
WAGE created a comprehensive plan (2021–2022) to address a wide array of gender-sensitive issues that directly affect Canadian women, ranging from childcare services and giving women entrepreneurs more resources to start businesses to fighting human trafficking and formulating plans to make the Royal Canadian Mounted Police safe from discrimination and harassment.
The conversation on women’s rights and gender equality is still complex and highly relevant. As the Hon. Maryam Monsef stated in 2020 at the 50-year mark of the Status of Women Report, “The most important thing that we can do as feminists and equity seekers is to be kind to one another because the work is hard. The work is exhausting. Systems change slowly and not necessarily naturally. A deliberate, coordinated, relentless attempt leads to systemic change”.
In a highly dynamic world where uncertainty is a new norm, we should not dedicate just a day to addressing the issues of gender equality as information and opportunities move faster than ever. Especially now, with the climate crisis at the global forefront, women and girls must be part of the action towards solutions. We must make SDG 5 our agenda every day and take action directed at identifying, reporting and addressing gender-related gaps in our communities.
Edited by Ali Shahrukh Pracha