The COVID-19 crisis is both being driven by and is exacerbating existing forms of violence, discrimination and marginalization experienced by women and girls, particularly those that experience multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, NAWL has been leading and supporting advocacy to highlight both the importance of ensuring there is a fully gender responsive approach to all aspects of the COVID-19 response and recovery. This has included advocacy on the importance of consultations with women’s and equality seeking groups, and funding mechanisms to help stabilize our sector. These will ensure that we not only survive, but are able to play a central role in advocating for and supporting the application of an intersectional gender-responsive approach to service delivery, and the development of feminist policy frameworks that will be required in order for a meaningful and equality advancing response and recovery in order for the COVID-19 response and recovery to be equality advancing.
As a starting point to begin stabilizing the women’s rights sector, NAWL together with our sister organization, the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women, developed a proposal for support to equality seeking women’s groups in Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic that could be implemented very quickly and would not require additional funding. The proposal was endorsed by 24 organizations and submitted to Women and Gender Equality Canada on April 17, 2020. That same day, NAWL and other women’s rights groups wrote a letter to Minister Monsef, which was endorsed by 28 groups, calling on the Government of Canada to ensure a rigorous and far-reaching gendered response to COVID-19.
On behalf of 22 women’s rights and equality seeking groups, on May 19, 2020, NAWL also sent a letter to the Prime Minister on feminist policy making in the context of COVID-19, advocating for the government’s recovery plan to include: (1) an immediate commitment from the government to the financial stabilization of the women’s rights and gender equality sector, in response to the unique disadvantages that this sector faces; and (2) the establishment and funding of processes for and with organizations with a primary focus on advancing women’s rights and gender equality.
NAWL continues to lead and support efforts to ensure that the rights of all women are systematically taken into account in COVID-19 related service delivery and policy frameworks.
Advocacy on family law issues has been among NAWL’s thematic law reform priorities for decades. The Divorce Act is the only federal family law, and it had not been comprehensively reviewed or updated since the 1980’s, until Bill C-78: An Act Amend the Divorce Act, the Family Orders and Agreement Enforcement Assistance Act ad the Garnishment, Attachment and Pension Division Act and to make consequential amendments to an other Act was introduced on May 22, 2018.
Because of the importance of the Divorce Act to so many women in Canada, NAWL prioritized bringing together feminist groups, academics, lawyers, and the media to engage in this law reform process. To anchor feminist analysis of and engagement on Bill C-78, NAWL in partnership with Luke’s Place researched and prepared an in-depth discussion paper and brief on Bill C-78 to submit to the relevant parliamentary and senate committees, with a particular focus on domestic/family violence in the context of divorce. Through online and in person consultations that NAWL convened in Vancouver and Toronto in July, and in Ottawa in September 2018, a coalition of fifty-six (56) women from a forty-three (43) feminist and equality-seeking groups from across the country came together to advocate on this important piece of legislation.
By November 2018, the joint brief on Bill C-78 by NAWL and Luke’s Place, had been finalized, endorsed by thirty-one (31) feminist and equality seeking groups from across the country and submitted to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights. In addition, eleven (11) coalition members also submitted briefs to the Committee that cited the NAWL and Luke’s Place joint brief, as did women representing a range of coalition members who, like NAWL, appeared as expert witnesses before the Justice Committee. When the Bill reached the Senate in June 2019, NAWL appeared before the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, alongside two Quebec-based coalition members. The observations issued by the Senate Committee on Bill C-78 cited the joint NAWL and Luke’s Place brief. As a result of NAWL’s leadership and partnerships, there was a robust and coordinated feminist engagement on Bill C-78. After almost two decades of feminist advocacy calling for reforms to the Divorce Act, on June 21, 2019, Bill C-78 received Royal Asset and became law.
Ongoing feminist engagement in the implementation of the revised Divorce Act and related laws, is now required.
Violence against women and girls remains a critical issue in Canada, and one that requires urgent and ongoing action. All analysis of the legislative framework required to prevent and respond to violence against women (VAW) must be framed to also recognize and redress women’s poverty and economic insecurity, which structures and shapes women’s experiences of violence, and especially those of groups of women that are particularly vulnerable to VAW in its many forms. Ensuring that the historic and current context is well understood is essential to informing this analysis, particularly in relation to colonialism and the ongoing impacts of colonialism, including as they impact on violence against Indigenous women.
Particularly because of the jurisdictional issues between federal/provincial and territorial governments in relation to VAW, it is all the more important that the federal government take leadership in ensuring that Canada meets its international and domestic obligations to prevent and respond to VAW in a systematic, comprehensive, coordinated and coherent way.
Having a comprehensive legal framework in place is one key component, along with others that States are required to put in place and implement to prevent and respond to violence against women. The United Nations has called on all member states to implement and fund a National Action Plan on Violence Against Women (NAP VAW). Despite the fact that 180 organizations in Canada have called for the development of a NAP VAW in Canada, to date, one does not exist.
Therefore, in conjunction with first official visit to Canada of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences (UN SR VAW) in April 2018, NAWL launched virtual and in-person consultations to highlight the need for ongoing VAW law reform in Canada. The first in-person consultation held in April 2018, represented an important opportunity, the first in many years, for a diverse group of national feminist and equality seeking organizations to come together to discuss a common framework to begin the collective work on violence against women law reform in Canada. Despite the diversity in the respective organizational mandates and interests, this coalition of sixteen (16) national organizations was able to reach consensus on a robust set of recommendations for law reform to tackle violence against women in Canada. At a subsequent NAWL organized consultation, the groups then presented the agreed law reform recommendations to the UN SR VAW, representatives from the House of Commons and the Senate, and from the Department of Justice and Status of Women Canada.
Following these consultations, NAWL formally submitted the VAW law reform recommendations to the UN SR VAW on behalf of the participating organizations, along with a request that she include them in her mission report and urge the Canadian government to implement the recommended law reform to end violence against women. When the SR VAW released her report in June 2019, she cited the NAWL-led consultation and included many recommendations put forward by the coalition. A group of women’s rights groups, including NAWL, celebrated the SR VAW’s report to Canada on how the government could improve its record on violence against women prevention and response, particularly for First Nations, Métis and Inuit women.
The VAW law reform recommendations cited the need to improve criminal justice responses to survivors. To advance this work, in April 2020, NAWL prepared submissions on Bill C-5—An Act to Amend the Judges Act and the Criminal Code, which will introduce mandatory sexual assault training for federally appointed judges. NAWL’s brief on C-5 was endorsed by 36 feminist and equality-seeking organizations from across the country), and submitted to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights.
For the last forty-five (45) years, NAWL has worked to advance the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of all women in Canada. A comprehensive online archive of NAWL’s policy positions, briefs, letters, and resources on a wide range of women’s equality rights from the 1970’s-2017 is under construction, and will soon be available on our website.
As reflected in the updates section of our current work, from 2017 to date, NAWL has continued to join and amplify the feminist advocacy of women’s and equality seeking groups on a wide range of women’s equality rights issues.
Despite decades of feminist activism, litigation and law reform, advancing women’s sexual and reproductive rights has always been, and continues to be one focus of NAWL’s feminist advocacy. In January 2018, a vocal and well funded backlash began to attack the changes that the Federal Government introduced to the Canada Student Jobs Program (CSJP) to ensure that these federal grant monies could not be used to fund groups or initiatives that aim to undermine equality rights, including abortion rights. NAWL and Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights immediately responded by preparing: An Open Letter Supporting Recent Changes to the Canada Summer Jobs Program which was endorsed by more than 90 organizations and circulated via traditional and social media. Despite this widespread reflection of support by feminist and equality seeking groups, opposition to the CSJP attestation continued, and several legal challenges initiated by anti-choice groups and their supporters are still making their way through the courts.
To provide accessible feminist legal analysis of the relevant equality rights issues, NAWL produced a series of social media graphics on “Truths about Women’s Equality Rights and the Canada Summer Jobs Program Attestation” and initiated a social media campaign to coincide with the 2019 federal election. When the 2019 CSJP program was announced soon thereafter, in December 2018, NAWL, again with Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, wrote another open letter supporting the changes made by the federal government to the attestation requirement.
We are currently developing a policy paper to provide a feminist legal analysis of the relevant women’s rights, as reflected in international norms and standards, and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, including those that reflect the right to abortion in Canada, and to counter arguments that the CSJP attestation infringes on freedom of religion, conscience and/or expression. This policy work which was informed by a NAWL led consultation convened with feminist legal academics with extensive expertise on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and women’s rights and abortion rights activists, at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University in Halifax is forthcoming.
The resources and opportunities that were made available from the 1970s-2006 to support feminist engagement in law reform disappeared after NAWL and other feminist and equality seeking groups were defunded. The decade that followed left huge gaps in capacity and disrupted the intergenerational transfer of feminist law reform skills.
Without any operational or project funding, NAWL looked for alternative methods of supporting feminist advocacy, including by developing online resources designed for women law students and emerging activists. Through a generous donation made to the NAWL Trust by one of NAWL’s founders, Shirley Greenberg, in 2014 NAWL launched the first iteration of the bilingual, online Feminist Law Reform 101 course.
Since 2018, NAWL’s efforts to rebuild an inclusive and diverse feminist law reform network have expanded and intensified. Existing resources, including the FLR 101 online course, are currently being updated with new content, new technologies and accessibility features, to support feminist students, allies, advocates and activists across the country to effectively engage in feminist law reform at the federal level.
In addition, drawing on the FLR 101 materials, a series of workshops were run across the country to provide a diverse set of participants with insight on the federal law reform process and equip them with the necessary skills and confidence to write parliamentary briefs, draft op-eds, work in coalitions, lobby elected government officials and use social media for feminist advocacy and activism. Since March 2018, over 100 women representing almost 50 feminist and equality seeking organizations from across the country have participated in NAWL-led introductory workshops on feminist law reform.
These efforts continue as part of NAWL’s ongoing commitment to lead feminist law reform advocacy and support coalition and capacity building work to advance the equality rights of all women in Canada.
We developed this bilingual online course to equip law students, social justice advocates and community groups with resources and tips on how to engage in feminist law reform to advance women’s equality rights.take the flr 101 course