NAWL’s 14th Biennial Conference: Women, the Family and the State: Opening Address

Good evening everyone. I am glad to declare this conference open. Finally, after a full year of work and preparations, I think we have put together a very rich and very diversified conference, with a strong thematic link. Andrée Côté’s brilliant ideas have also allowed us to create a full French program and a series of special workshops on Women, Democracy and the Americas, illustrating a very special focus on international developments.

When we started to plan this conference, I was preoccupied with the major changes that were happening in my own area of immigration and refugee law. What I saw was a significant retreat from human rights commitments, both in Canada and internationally, and an increasing criminalization and demonization of both immigrants and refugees. At the same time, I also saw a significant reduction in social supports, and a move to privatize immigrant support obligations.

As I struggled to understand these changes in my own field, planning this conference has enabled me to see that these same changes are occurring in all areas of concern to women — spurred on by the new economic globalization, which has captured the minds and the agendas of our governments.

For the past dozen years, major international financial institutions and governments have been operating under what economist John Williamson called the “Washington Consensus” (he describes this consensus as “the lowest common denominator of policy advice being addressed by the Washington institutions to Latin American countries as of 1989”), a term that has come to symbolize many of the reforms that have overtaken our communities. The consensus has 10 points, which include unlimited economic growth, economic globalization, privatization, deregulation, unfettered free trade, liberalized global investment and a reduced role for governments everywhere.

Since the building of the Washington Consensus, and its imposition in various forms on national governments, there are now 200 million more people who live in absolute poverty in our world, that is, who earn less than $1.00 a day, despite unprecedented wealth creation. The world’s richest 225 people now control more wealth than the annual income of half of humanity, and the gap between the rich and the poor has widened dramatically. In the past 30 years, the income differential between the richest fifth of the world’s population and the poorest fifth has more than doubled: from 30:1 to 78:1.

Many of the world’s poorest nations are now locked in a vicious cycle of economic crisis, environmental degradation and poverty: the ideal climate for instability, repression, internal conflict and human rights abuses. Not surprisingly, there has been a staggering increase in the number of forcibly displaced persons in the world, estimated last year by the United Nations to be in excess of 41 million people. This is the context within which the dramatic immigration changes have arisen, as we in the first world move to interdict, detain and criminalize trafficked people, migrants, immigrants and refugees, and to erect ever increasing barriers in an attempt to create a fortress in the first world.

Here in Canada, the new global economy has also had profound effects. We have seen a 60 per cent rise in child poverty, the largest in the industrialized world. All of the economic studies tell us that average Canadians are getting poorer, not richer. We have slashed support services, slashed social assistance payments. We have a national homelessness crisis here in Canada and aspiring political leaders who believe that arresting and detaining the homeless, or impoverished street youth, is the answer. What the new global economy has produced is: increased poverty worldwide, increased inequality on the north/south divide, increased inequality at home. The social and economic divide has become more starkly drawn, both at home and internationally.

By redefining the role of the state, forcing governments to downsize, to reduce or even eliminate public services, and privatize a range of public services, the new global economy is profoundly affecting women and girls everywhere. Women, particularly if they belong to historically disadvantaged communities — single mothers, aboriginal women, racialized minorities or disabled women — need the benefit of state support and public programs and services to fight inequality, oppression, exploitation and violence in the home, in the workplace, and in our communities.

The rhetoric of the new globalized economy speaks of “free trade”, “liberalizing investment”, “deregulating”, “level the playing field”, in a vocabulary that is suggestive, even evocative of a human rights context. But in reality, the rhetoric masks the deteriorating social and economic conditions, and inequality, which the globalized economy is intensifying.

Home

Without a strong state committed to women’s equality, women will be forced back into the private family sphere, where historically they have been unprotected, unequal and subject to arbitrary abuse of power. Our panellists and workshop presenters will be looking closely at the renewed privatization of our relations within the family, and what this means for women’s equality, in particular what it means for women’s economic and personal security.

Work

Sexism compounded by racism has been the hallmark of women’s working experience in Canada. We are paid less, subject to sexual and racial harassment and face almost insurmountable systemic barriers as workplaces refuse to accommodate the needs of working mothers, and the State refuses to provide adequate childcare. We need to examine the important role of pay and employment equity for women, and to track the consequences of governments’ disengagement in these areas. What have the effects of cuts in the public sector in these areas been on women’s dignity and autonomy in the workplace?

In the Community

Paradoxically, just as women and other equality seeking groups are starting to make significant gains in the Canadian courts, which have recognized that government must take positive measures to promote equality, we are seeing the very role of government in promoting and providing basic human welfare shrink. Instead of taking positive steps to promote equality, state action is being reduced to criminal sanctions against the most vulnerable, be they street kids, First Nations people, the homeless, single mothers on social assistance or immigrants and refugees.

With this conference, we hope to learn from each other just what changes are taking place, try to understand what is causing these changes, and to look at how we can use national, international and regional human rights instruments to ensure effective remedies to inequality for women. What promise does the American Convention on Human Rights hold for women, and how best can we ensure that Canada’s ratification promotes women’s equality, and does not sacrifice our hard won rights to abortion and contraception. Indeed, we need to explore how ratification of this important Convention could be used to promote social and economic rights, and to eliminate violence against women.

We recognize this is a very ambitious agenda for any conference. I can only say the incredible richness of the panel and workshop presenters, and the overwhelming number of conference participants, gives me confidence that we will go a long way to achieving our goals of learning from each other, and strategizing on how best to preserve and promote women’s human rights, both nationally, and internationally.

I am pleased to welcome all of you to this conference and I hope that you will find it a wonderful experience.

Chantal Tie is an adjunct-professor of Immigration and Refugee law at the University of Ottawa Law School. She chairs the Court Challenges Program of Canada and also sits on the Legal Aid Ontario Test Case committee, which approves test case and group applications for funding.