Canadian women’s organizations set the agenda for the review by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women of Canada’s 5th report. The national report, prepared by the Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA), and the B.C. report, prepared by the B.C. CEDAW Group, provided Committee members with a detailed picture of the situation of women in Canada. (Look for the national and B.C. reports on the FAFIA Web site at http://www.fafia-afai.org/. The B.C. Report is also on the Povnet Web site at http://www.povnet.org).
Officials from Status of Women Canada, including Florence Ievers, who was the head of Canada’s delegation, praised the high quality of our reports, and indicated that they found them very informative and useful to their own review of current policies.
The CEDAW Committee members, who were at first somewhat daunted by the size and thoroughness of the Canadian NGO reports, became highly interested in the situation of Canadian women. CEDAW Committee members are, of course, familiar with the negative impacts that structural adjustment programs and the implementation of the neo-liberal agenda are having on women in countries around the world, as governments are down-sized, markets are deregulated and social programs are cuts. Therefore, though the particularities of the changes to Canada’s federal-provincial funding arrangements and the effect of this on social programs in all Canadian jurisdictions are new to them, they recognize as a known pattern the negative impacts that flow to women from cuts to services that increase their unpaid work, remove “good jobs”, and eliminate or diminish the availability of services that women rely on to fill gaps, and to support them when they are abused.
What surprised CEDAW Committee members was the extent of poverty among women in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. The figures that both women’s NGOs and the Canadian government gave them are shocking. A number of CEDAW Committee members were also surprised by decisions taken recently by governments which clearly worsen conditions for the most disadvantaged women, including cuts to welfare benefits, the NCB claw back, cuts to already inadequate childcare, and cuts to already thin legal aid provision for family law and poverty law.
Many of the CEDAW Committee members were confounded by the federal government’s failure to deal with obvious inequalities in law for Aboriginal women – including the unresolved and continuing discrimination against Bill C-31 re-instatees, the provision of the Canadian Human Rights Act that bars women from making complaints of discrimination against Band Councils, and the lack of any guarantee for Aboriginal women living on reserve to an equal division of matrimonial property at the time of marriage breakdown.
CEDAW Committee members were also concerned by the evidence of the impact of racism on women in Canada that can be seen in the high rates of poverty and lower employment incomes of women of colour and immigrant women, as well as by the blatant sex discrimination inherent in the Immigration Act, and by the weakening of employment standards which have particular importance to marginalized women.
Many of the members of the CEDAW Committee know Canada in international fora as a key supporter and promoter of initiatives to advance women’s human rights, such as the Declaration on Violence Against Women and the appointment of a Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women. Committee members are also aware of money provided by the Canadian International Development Agency that is specifically earmarked for women’s projects in developing countries. The Committee expressed both their congratulations to Canada for its leadership in the international arena, and their dismay about the situation of women in Canada.
In the first round of questioning, 17 of 23 CEDAW members asked questions. Here is a sample of those questions:
1. Why was Canada’s 5th report, which documents initiatives taken between 1994 – 1998, not provided to the CEDAW Committee until 2002?
2. When will the federal government introduce “social condition” into its human rights legislation, and what is the government’s attitude towards the inclusion of this ground?
3. Is gender analysis mandatory for all parts of the federal government and for the provincial governments? Why was a gender analysis of the impact of the Budget Implementation Act (BIA) of 1995, which restructured federal-provincial relations with respect to social programs, not done? The BIA could not have been designed and implemented in the way it was if gender analysis had been done. Why has the federal government given up the conditioning of monies it provides to provincial governments since this permits inconsistencies in implementation of CEDAW obligations?
4. Why does the First Nations Governance Act not address the residual discrimination against Bill C-31 women, and provide for the equal division of matrimonial property at the time of marriage breakdown for on-reserve Aboriginal women?
5. How will Canada achieve harmonious implementation of the Convention, given the different responsibilities of the federal and provincial governments, and the lack of a mechanism for ensuring consistency?
6. How does Canada justify the high levels of poverty among women when Canada is one of the wealthiest countries in the world? These high levels of poverty were commented on by the CEDAW Committee in 1997, by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1998, and by the Human Rights Committee in 1999. The CEDAW Committee recommended in 1997 that social assistance be restored to adequate levels. Please explain why this has not been done?
7. What is the rationale for the elimination of the Human Rights Commission in B.C. and the elimination of the Ministry of Women’s Equality? What is the justification for the long list of cuts and closures in this province – to health care, welfare, legal aid, courts and judicial services, and employment standards protections?
8. Is there political recognition in Canada that the figures regarding women living in poverty are shocking? Is there a political will to address this situation? The governments will need NGOs to help them address this serious situation. How do Canadian governments envisage cooperation with NGOs in the future?
9. Why are poverty eradication strategies focussed on children but not on women?
10. The Immigration Act has a male bias, favouring – in the economic immigrant class – those with high skills and/or investment income. What system is there for monitoring the situation of immigrant and migrant women?
11. What rationale does Canada provide for the Live-In Caregiver Program? The women who come to Canada under this program are treated unequally and lack adequate social protections.
12. Regarding the “third safe country agreement” for the return of refugees, does Canada consider a country “safe” if an asylum seeker will be detained in that country?
13. Regarding the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, what provisions are there to deal with victims of trafficking? What is the position of a woman who is a victim of trafficking?
14. Regarding refugees and gender-based persecution, how many women have been admitted as refugees based on a finding of gender-based persecution? What facilities and programs are made available to these women?
15. The current situation of Aboriginal women does not reflect Canada’s commitment to equality. Their high incarceration rates, lower educational attainment, poorer health, and unequal status at law are all concerns. Will Canada, at the time of its next report, provide a compilation of information regarding Aboriginal women, as well as an evaluation of federal and provincial programs to address their inequalities?
Some of the responses of the Canadian delegation were uninformative and defensive. But Florence Ievers, as head of the Canadian delegation, was direct and open. She indicated in her remarks that no gender analysis of the 1995 Budget Implementation Act (which changed the funding relations between the federal and provincial governments and removed conditions for receipt of federal transfer payments) was done and that this did “mark a regression in the condition of women.” Ms. Ievers also indicated, at the conclusion of the review session that Canada “would endeavour to meet the recommendations of the Committee.”
We can expect the Concluding Observations on Canada within the next month. The CEDAW session ended Friday, January 31, 2003 but the concluding observations on the countries reviewed during this session must be translated before they are issued. There is no fixed date for their release.
The concluding observations will be couched in diplomatic language, and, inevitably, some issues that merit commentary will be overlooked. However, we can expect that the major concerns reflected in the CEDAW Committee’s questions will also be reflected in its concluding observations.
The CEDAW Committee
The CEDAW Committee is composed of 23 members. They are nominated by their countries because of their expertise in the area of women’s rights. They are elected by the members of the United Nations Economic and Social Council. Following the election in August 2002 of nine new members, the Committee’s current members are: Ayse Feride Acar (Chairperson), Turkey; Sjamsiah Achmad, Indonesia; Meriem Belmihoub-Zerdani, Algeria; Huguette Bokpe Gnacadja, Benin; Maria Yolanda Ferrer Gomez (Vice-Chairperson), Cuba; Cornelis Flinterman, Netherlands; Naela Gabr, Egypt; Françoise Gaspard, France; Aida Gonzalez Martinez, Mexico; Christine Kapalata (Rapporteur), United Republic of Tanzania; Salma Khan, Bangladesh; Akua Kuenyehia, Ghana;Fatima Kwaku, Nigeria; Rosario Manalo, Philippines; Goran Melander, Sweden; Krisztina Morvai, Hungary; Pramila Patten, Mauritius; Victoria Popescu Sandru (Vice-Chairperson), Romania; Fumiko Saiga, Japan; Hanna Beate Schopp-Schilling, Germany; Heisoo Shin (Vice-Chairperson), Republic of Korea; Dubravka Simonovic, Croatia; and Maria Regina Tavares da Silva,Portugal.
Canada sent 26 official representatives to the CEDAW review, in a delegation headed by Florence Ievers, Co-ordinator of Status of Women Canada. The other members of the delegation were: Michelle Williams (Observer on behalf of the Secretary of State, the Honourable Jean Augustine); Martha Wilson, Jackie Claxton, Sheila Regehr, Teresa Edwards, and Ann Schroeder from Status of Women Canada; Gilbert Laurin, Ambassador, Permanent Mission of Canada to the United Nations in New York; Beatrice Maille, Louise Holt, and Nell Stewart, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade; Mary Quinn, Human Resources Development Canada; Monica Mavrak, Health Canada; Elizabeth Eid and Gillian Blackell, Justice; Sandra Harder, Citizenship and Immigration; Calie McPhee, Canadian Heritage; Sandra Ginnish, Indian and Northern Affairs; Gail Erickson and Rachel Whissell, Agriculture and Agri-food Canada; Susan Christie Hatt, British Columbia; Brigitte Neumann, Nova Scotia; Robert MacNevin, Prince Edward Island; Pauline Gingras, Sophie Niquette, and Marie-Jose Desmarais, Quebec.
NGO Reports and Representatives
Canadian women’s organizations submitted four reports to the CEDAW Committee:
1) a national report prepared by FAFIA;
2) a B.C. report prepared by the B.C. CEDAW Group;
3) a Quebec report prepared by the Regroupement provincial des maisons d’hébergement et de transition pour femmes victimes de violence conjugale, focussed on funding for women’s shelters in Quebec, and
4) a submission prepared by the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (CAEFS) on the treatment of federally sentenced women. (The information contained in these latter two reports is also included in the national FAFIA report.) Amnesty International also made a submission to the Committee.
FAFIA and the B.C. CEDAW Group were represented at the CEDAW review by Sharon McIvor, Margot Young, and Shelagh Day. Regroupement provincial was represented by Louise Riendeau. Kim Pate represented CAEFS, and Cheryl Hotchkiss represented Amnesty International. Adeena Naizi and Asma Ibrahim represented the Afghan Women’s Organization (Canada). Marilou McPhedran, co-author of the first CEDAW Impact Study (2000), accompanied Adeena Naizi and Asma Ibrahim in joining members of the Canadian NGO delegation.
FAFIA and the B.C. CEDAW Group acknowledge with gratitude the support of Status of Women Canada, the Poverty and Human Rights Project, the B.C. Law Foundation, the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union, the Women’s Committee of the B.C. Federation of Labour, and individual donors.
Shelagh Day is a human rights expert and advocate. She is the Special Advisor on Human Rights to NAWL.