Reflections on Canada’s first gender equality week

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Sabrina Almeida

Canada celebrated its first gender equality week from September 23 to 29. It was established by Bill C-309 (the Gender Equality Week Act) introduced by Sven Spengemann, MP for Mississauga–Lakeshore. The bill which received Royal Assent on June 21 designated the fourth week in September (leading up to Women’s History Month in October) every year for Canadians to engage in conversations and activities promoting gender parity.

Gender equality is one of the United Nation’s sustainable development (and millennial development) goals. The UN believes this fundamental human right is critical not just to the empowerment of women but “a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world”.

Unfortunately, the UN reports that currently 1 in 5 women and girls between the ages of 15-49 have experienced physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner within a 12-month period. Moreover 49 countries have no laws to protect women from domestic violence.

This goes to show that while some progress has been made, we are still a long way from providing equal status and opportunity to all.

With crimes against women being largely hidden in Canada, we should not be tricked into thinking that being a first world country insulates us from them. According to the Canadian Women’s Foundation (CWF), discrimination continues to manifest in many ways here including domestic violence, sexual assault and harassment, and sex trafficking.

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CWF statistics paint an ugly picture. A woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner approximately every six days. What’s more on any given night 3,491 women and their 2,724 children sleep in shelters to escape abuse. Cyber violence which includes online (and physical) threats, harassment and stalking has emerged as a new form of violence against women. Those between the ages of 18 and 24 are especially affected by it.

Women in Canada experience abuse irrespective of age, status and religious orientation. A social worker who did not want to be named said South Asian women are least likely to report it or get out of abusive relationships fearing repercussions from their partner and family as well as societal scorn.

Children are the forgotten victims of domestic abuse. Medical research indicates that kids who witness violence at home are twice as likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders. UNICEF cites a North American study which found that children who were exposed to violence in the home were 15 times more likely to be physically and/or sexually assaulted than the national average. This link was confirmed by supporting studies from several countries including China, South Africa, Colombia, India, Egypt, the Philippines and Mexico. The RCMP goes on to say witnessing violence is as harmful as directly experiencing it and equates it with child abuse.

Unknown to many of us, human sex trafficking typically associated with third world countries is also rampant in our communities. According to a Statistics Canada report in July of this year, we are experiencing the highest incidence. Majority of the victims are women under the age of 25.

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Social workers rehabilitating victims reveal that most of those being trafficked and forced into sex work are Canadian born. Not women brought in from other countries, like we previously believed. Media and police reports also suggest that 60% of cases in Canada occur in the GTA.

Girls are recruited in various ways (online, in school and by so-called boyfriends) and most continue to live at home while carrying out the sex work in hotel rooms or apartments. While girls and women experiencing emotional distress and self-esteem issues might be especially vulnerable, survivors say many are just regular people who are groomed into the sex trade by males who know how to manipulate them. Fear, emotional, psychological and financial dependence prevents them from reporting their handlers or getting out of it.

In a documentary shared with Can-India, a young victim revealed that her clients were regular men not the sleazy, low-lives and cheaters we would typically associate with prostitution. Law enforcement agencies as well as those working to rehabilitate victims want Canadians to be aware that it can happen to anyone, irrespective of socio-economic status, race or religion. The extent of the problem is exemplified by ‘The Saving the Girl Next Door Act’ (2016), spearheaded by Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock MPP Laurie Scott, which aims to tackle this modern form of human slavery and abuse of women.

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Equal opportunities for employment and financial independence are key factors in the empowerment of women. Bollywood actress-turned-author Twinkle Khanna highlighted the crux of problem when she said, “if you are not financially independent, then you have to toe the line”. Women must stop thinking of themselves as the weaker sex that needs men to provide and care for them. Many of us have grown up seeing women lean on men and we need to change that picture for the future generation.

We also need to decide whether we want to be treated as ‘equal’ or ‘special’. Being on par with men means we don’t get to play helpless when it suits us. It also requires us to solve our own problems and shoulder our responsibilities both in our professional and personal lives. And more importantly to recognize the consequences of poor decisions, rather than cry foul to get out of it.
Finally, those of us who enjoy equal status and opportunity have an obligation to give back. It’s time to get involved, educate, encourage and liberate those that are still marginalized. -CINEWS


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