Harper government has done little for women

MontrealGazette.com – business
January 28, 2011.   By Janet Bagnall, The Gazette

Last week when Stephen Harper listed the achievements of his five years as prime minister, he studiously avoided talking about what he had done for women. Why call attention to the fact that his government not only didn’t do much for women, but undermined what previous governments had done?

Among Harper’s achievements, as he listed them at an event to mark his first electoral victory on Jan. 23, 2006, are: apologizing for the abuse suffered by native Canadians in residential schools (something for which his government could not remotely be held accountable); cutting the GST by two percentage points (thereby depriving government coffers of $10 billion to $12 billion, while the state continues to slide into debt of more than $100 billion for 2009-10); acknowledging the Quebecois as a nation within Canada (while offering no legal advantages); and bringing in a stimulus spending program that tended to safeguard (male) construction work, rather than (female) public-sector employment.

Women could have done with government help during the past five years. They continue to be penalized in the workplace for having children. They are under-represented in public office and increasingly frozen out of government appointments. The social safety net no longer offers as much safety as it once did. Women’s-rights groups, including those representing missing native women, are struggling as their state subsidies are cut.

-A database of nearly 600 cases of missing or murdered aboriginal women in Canada has been denied government funding, according to the National Union of Public and General Employees. Status of Women Canada is said to have told the Native Women’s Association of Canada not to use any government funding for the database, which tries to track the circumstances and causes of the disappearances of native women. According to the 2004 federal General Social Survey, native women are 31/2 times more likely to be the victim of violence than non-aboriginal women. The meanness of cutting funds from native women trying to find women missing from their communities is striking in the wake of murders committed by Robert Pickton on his pig farm.

– In October, the World Economic Forum reported that Canada ranked 20th in global gender equality. When it comes to the earning gap between men and women, Canada falls to 33rd place. The estimated average earned income for Canadian women is $28,315, compared with $40,000 for men. A separate study by the Toronto-Dominion Bank ascribed the wage gap to motherhood. Women who leave the workforce to have children tend to experience “an unexplained, but persistent” wage gap of about three per cent a year for each year they are away. This affects a large number of women: In 2009, nearly three in four Canadian mothers with children under the age of 16 living at home were in the paid workforce.

-Women’s share of government appointments to Canada’s more than 200 federal tribunals, boards, agencies and Crown corporations has fallen since the Conservatives came to power in January 2006: Between 2002 and December 2005, the CBC reported, about 37 per cent of the approximately 2,000 posts were held by women. From February 2006 to May 2010, that percentage had dropped to 32.5 per cent.

-In a badly timed piece of policy, just as the 2008-09 economic meltdown cut into Canada’s job market, rules were tightened for employment-insurance eligibility, the National Council of Welfare points out. Under the 2009 budget, statistics show, only 44 per cent of unemployed Canadians drew unemployment benefits, compared with 83 per cent in 1990. At the same time, welfare became harder to get, forcing more people into destitution to qualify. In an NCW press release last month, Don Drummond, chief economist of the TD Bank, criticized the trend, saying, “the record shows once you become destitute you tend to stay in that state. You have no means to absorb setbacks in income or unexpected costs.” In Canada, the poverty rate for single-parent mothers was 48.9 per cent in 2003, the highest rate for any family type.

-Women in Canada’s prisons are twice as likely as male prisoners to have been diagnosed with a mental illness, it was reported this week, with as many as 80 per cent of them suffering sexual abuse as children.

Harper’s decision to champion the cause of maternal and child health in poor countries is commendable. The world’s vulnerable need a defender. But there are vulnerable women here at home. They need help too.

jbagnall@montrealgazette.com

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