The Importance of Funding Women’s Groups

As a consequence of a periodic five year renewal process which the federal government is obliged to undertake, the new Conservative government must very soon decide whether the Status of Women Canada Women’s Program will be renewed, reformed or whether it will lapse and disappear altogether.

This program is essential to ensure the survival of many women’s equality-seeking groups throughout the country, and thus to ensure that politicians and policy makers are informed of key issues affecting women. In a society where women continue to be marginalized within key political, social and legal institutions, it is essential that a strong and autonomous women’s movement exist to promote recommendations for a progressive realization of women’s human rights, such as equality before the law, the right to an adequate standard of living, to life and security, to meaningful employment, and access to justice, amongst many other things.

We call on the federal government to demonstrate its leadership and vision as it pertains to women’s equality by renewing the current mandate and objectives of the Women’s Program, and to increase its budget substantially. We also call on the government to ensure that not only project funding is available, but core funding to sustain the day-to-day operations of women’s groups. This also means that the next federal budget must take into account the need to fund women’s groups, along with other key elements of gender-budgeting.

Table of Contents

  1. A Question of Political Will – Why Women’s Equality Still Matters
  2. Some History: Monies from SWC’s Women’s Program has been crucial
  3. More Work to Do
  4. The Establishment of the Women’s Program
  5. Recent History: House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women
  6. Past Federal Acknowledgment of the Important Role played by Women’s Groups
  7. International support for the funding of Women’s Groups

1. A Question of Political Will – Why Women’s Equality Still Matters

In the last several weeks, there has been much speculation about the direction and fate of the Women’s Program on the part of women’s organizations, political parties, concerned individuals and others. The media has featured several stories about social conservative forces, such as R.E.A.L. Women of Canada, who seek to abolish Status of Women Canada. Organizations such as R.E.A.L. Women contend that the Women’s Program of Status of Women Canada has been funding “anti-family, anti-life” groups, and that it has enabled them to become “agents of change to promote feminism throughout Canada”.

This view reflects the all too frequent misunderstandings about the status of women’s equality and the on-going role of equality-seeking women’s organizations. It is often argued that the work of women’s groups is no longer necessary because ‘equality has been achieved’ or ‘discrimination has been outlawed’. While it is undoubtedly the case that there was significant political momentum in favour of achieving sexual equality in the 1980’s, leading up to and following the enactment of the constitutional equality rights provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1985, it is also widely recognized that equality still remains elusive for all too many women. Then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney recognized this when he appointed the Canadian Panel on Violence in 1991. Successive governments in Canada have also participated in the Fourth United Nations World Conference on Women that was held in Beijing, China in 1995 and its follow up efforts in 2000 and 2005. In addition, Canada has ratified a number of international human rights treaties which require it to report on a periodic basis to the United Nations on its implementation of the rights of women. Foremost among these is the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), under which Canada reported in January 2003.

These efforts are necessary because, despite the achievement of formal guarantees of equality for women in Canadian laws and in the Constitution, and despite important progress for some women over the last 50 years, women’s inequality remains deeply entrenched and systemic. As numerous studies and reports have demonstrated, sexual discrimination is ongoing at work, in the family, in political life and in our social and cultural institutions. Women from historically disadvantaged groups suffer ever deeper and more serious forms of inequality. This has been eloquently documented in the alternative report prepared in 2002 by FAFIA and its member groups to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, and the joint FAFIA and NAWL alternative report that was submitted in 2006 to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (see, and

The recent Statistics Canada report, Women in Canada 2005, 1 and the federally commissioned report of the Expert Panel on Accountability Mechanisms for Gender Equality, entitled Equality for Women: Beyond the Illusion, released in July 2006 reiterates this reality:

“… many people think that we have truly achieved equality for women in Canada. Much as we would like it to be so, it is simply not the case. In 2005, only one in five members of Parliament is a woman. The same holds true in general across the legislatures of the provinces and territories. Girls are the victims of more than four out of five cases of sexual assault on minors. Four out of five one-parent families are headed by women. The employment income gap between male and female university graduates who work full time has widened. Women working full time still earn only 71 cents for every dollar that men make. Women do the large majority of unpaid work in Canada. (p. 15)…The most recent figures show that 38 percent of Aboriginal women live in low income situations. So, too, do 35 percent of lone mothers and 27 percent of immigrant women. Immigrant women working full time earn 58 cents for every dollar earned by Canadian born men” (p. 17).

As a consequence, women’s groups continue to play a critical role. These groups raise the difficult issues that impact on women’s lives, propose concrete and viable policy and hold governments accountable for respecting and promoting women’s rights. As has always been the case, we need to ensure that autonomous women’s groups can not only survive, but thrive and develop. Federal funding is a key component to ensuring that these groups can do the work necessary to meet the needs of women in their communities, and to ensure that appropriate policies and program are in place that can positively affect women’s lives. The need for national support of equality-seeking women’s groups has also been recognized by international bodies, including the United Nations treaty bodies, the World Bank , and the Association for Women’s Rights in Development.

2. Some History: Monies from SWC’s Women’s Program has been crucial

The abolition or radical re-structuring of the Women’s Program would likely have a significant impact on the women’s movement across Canada and in Québec. Women’s groups and the other equality-seeking organizations that have received funding via the Women’s Program throughout the years and (during both Conservative and Liberal times) have played a vital role in Canadian democracy, ensuring that the concerns of women are brought to the attention of policy makers, and that their input is provided in the law reform process.

Historically, women’s groups have played a key role in demonstrating why federal and provincial governments should consider amending their legislation and their policies to stop discriminating against women. It is thanks to the dedicated work of women’s groups that we have been able to achieve the following law reforms:

  • Introduction of maternity benefits in the Unemployment Insurance Act in the 1970’s
  • Amendment of federal and provincial family law legislation to ensure more economic justice for wives, to protect their access to the matrimonial home, to improve the law of custody and access and introduce child support guidelines
  • Amendment of the Criminal Code provisions to abolish the immunity of husbands for raping their wives
  • The adoption of prosecutorial policies to criminalize wife assault
  • The amendment of the Indian Act to ameliorate the discriminatory denial of Indian status to Aboriginal women who married non-Indian men
  • The amendment of federal and provincial human rights statutes to prohibit sexual harassment, and discrimination based on pregnancy and sexual orientation
  • The protection of therapeutic and confidential files of sexual assault survivors in the context of criminal proceedings
  • The inclusion in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act of a requirement that the Minister conduct an analysis of the impact of the Act on women, and that he report to Parliament annually on this gender-based analysis
  • In addition to providing advice to government and government agencies, groups such as NAWL and LEAF and FAFIA have provided other women’s groups with their research and legal and economic expertise. This legal expertise was much needed in the recent fight to remove religious arbitration in family law matters from the Ontario Arbitration Act.

3. More Work to Do

Aside from these very significant reforms, the struggle for full equality is not yet over. In January 2003, the UN expert committee reviewing Canada’s fulfilment of its equality commitments to women noted that significant improvements needed to made in order that women have the opportunity to fully participate in Canadian society. Among other things, this renowned international body recommended that Canada:

  • Increase its efforts to combat poverty among women in general and vulnerable groups of women in particular
  • Find ways for ensuring that sufficient legal aid is available to women under all jurisdictions when seeking redress in issues of civil and family law and in those relating to poverty issues. (para.356)
  • Accelerate its efforts to eliminate all forms of discrimination against Aboriginal women both in society at large and in their communities, particularly with respect to the remaining discriminatory legal provisions and the equal enjoyment of their human rights to education, employment and physical and psychological well-being. It also recommended… that aboriginal women receive sufficient funding in order to be able to participate in the necessary governance… processes that address issues which impede their legal and substantive equality.“ (para.362)
  • “Eliminat[e] remaining provisions and practices which still discriminate against immigrant women and address provisions and practices which may still contribute to devaluing women’s educational skills and previous economic contributions to their families’ well-being. (para.364)
  • Monitor closely the situation of women’s non-standard jobs and introduce employment-related measures which will bring more women into standard employment arrangements with adequate social benefits. .. [It also] urged [Canada] to accelerate its implementation efforts as regards equal pay for work of equal value at the federal level (para.382)
  • Search for innovative ways to strengthen the currently existing consultative federal-provincial-territorial process for human rights as well as other mechanisms of partnership in order to ensure that coherent and consistent measures in line with the Convention are achieved. (para.350)
  • Expand affordable childcare facilities under all governments and that it report, with nationwide figures, on demand, availability and affordability of childcare in its next report.” (para.380)
  • Reconsider those changes in the fiscal arrangements between the federal Government and the provinces and territories so that national standards of a sufficient level are re-established and women will no longer be negatively affected in a disproportionate way in different parts of [the country]. (para.352)
  • Ensure that women’s non-governmental organizations representing different groups of women under all governments, and other relevant non-governmental organizations, be involved in a national discussion [in Canada] and the dissemination of the next report.” (para.386)

It is not just women’s groups who recognize the necessity to implement many of these recommendations. During the last federal election campaign, all five federal party leaders, including the then-Leader of the Official Opposition and now Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Stephen Harper, recognized that “Canada must do more to respect its international commitments regarding the equality of women.” (See In a letter to the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA), a strategic alliance of women’s and human rights groups, Mr. Harper committed his party to taking immediate and concrete measures, as recommended by the United Nations, so that Canada can fully live up to its human rights obligations to women. In order to honour this commitment, it is necessary for this government to continue its own efforts regarding women’s equality (through a variety of instruments, including Status of Women Canada), and to support the efforts and initiatives of the many national and regional women’s organizations who support women and provide them a voice before Parliament and government. Therefore, it is very important that the Government of Canada maintain the Women’s Program of Status of Women Canada, including its current objectives, and increase its level of funding.

4. The Establishment of the Women’s Program

The Women’s Program (WP) has provided funding to women’s organizations and equality-seeking groups since 1973. The WP is a grants and contribution program within Status of Women Canada. Its mandate is to support action by women’s organizations and other women’s equality-seeking groups, thus contributing to the promotion of gender equality and the full participation of women in economic, social, cultural and political life. More specifically, the Women’s Program’s objectives are “to promote policies and programs that take account of gender implications, the diversity of women’s perspectives and enable women to take part in decision-making; to facilitate the involvement of women’s organizations in the public policy process; to increase public understanding in order to encourage action on women’s equality issues; and to enhance the effectiveness of actions undertaken by women’s organizations to improve the situation of women” (source:

The Women’s Program has an annual budget of $10 million, including some $2 million coming from the now defunct Agenda for Gender Equality. This represents a smaller budget than the Program had in 1986. In addition, since 1997, the Women’s Program only funds “projects”, and it does not provide core funding, to sustain the ongoing activities of groups. This has had a very negative impact, and several women’s groups have closed down because of the difficulties caused by project funding. In 2004-2005 Status of Women Canada commissioned an outside evaluation of the Women’s program which included a survey of over 500 groups, and interviews with 40 key stakeholders. It was completed in August 2005, but the report does not seem to be in the public domain

5. Recent History: House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women – Recommendations to Improve the Women’s Program

In October 2004, at the agreement of all parties in the House of Commons, the first Standing Committee on the Status of Women, which would be composed of representatives from all political parties in the House of Commons, was created. The Standing Committee has taken a special interest in the funding mechanisms for women’s groups, as well as the accountability mechanisms that could ensure that the federal government complies with its obligations to advance women’s equality and commitments to conduct gender-based analysis in all major areas of its work.

The House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women tabled two reports – in February and in May 2005 – proposing improvements to the Women’s Program. The Standing Committee focussed in particular on the problems with project funding that “has made it difficult to sustain a women’s movement in Canada and made it increasingly difficult for the women’s movement to advocate on behalf of women” (May report, p.6).

In its May 2005 report, the Standing Committee recommended the introduction of a mix of core funding and project funding, as well as a 25% increase in the Women’s Program budget. It also recommended that Status of Women Canada position itself as a leader in the application of the Code of Good Practice on Funding that was developed in 2003, under the Voluntary Sector Initiative. Finally, we note that the Standing Committee recommended that SWC work with other federal government departments to raise awareness about the importance of funding gender projects relevant to the funding mandates of those governments. This would certainly increase the funding base of women’s equality-seeking organizations.

6. Past Federal Acknowledgment of the Important Role played by Women’s Groups

Within Canada, federal policy has acknowledged the importance of non-governmental organizations in the democratic life of Canada ever since the Royal Commission on the Status of Women (1971).

The Royal Commission on the Status of Women recognized the importance of women’s groups in the following terms: “Much of the credit for equal pay legislation is due to women’s associations which tenaciously solicited provincial and federal governments. They have urged Canadian ratification of United Nations and International Labour Organization conventions relating to women. Estate taxes, jury duty and penal reform are but a few of the other matters on which they have approached governments. Not only have they been instrumental in bringing about reform but they have served the role of keeping governments informed of women’s views on current affairs” (par.150). The Royal Commission Report recommended that the federal government increase financial support to women’s groups.

More recently, the 1995 Federal Plan for Gender Equality also recognized the importance of women’s equality-seeking groups in this way: “the well-developed network of women’s organizations contributes to the setting of local and national agendas for gender equality, providing direct services to women and children, and educating all sectors of the public and government on issues relevant to gender equality. The extent to which violence against women and children has become a leading area of public policy is an outstanding example of how women’s voices and experiences have shaped legislation, policies and programs in recent years. Much of this contribution could not have occurred without thousands of individuals and organizations in communities donating their time and expertise to ameliorate the lives of women.” (Setting the Stage for the Next Century: The Federal Plan for Gender Equality, Status of Women Canada, 1995, p. 9)

The Voluntary Sector Initiative Accord, agreed upon in 2002, also emphasized the importance of supporting women’s groups and other voluntary sector organizations. This Accord holds democracy, active citizenship, equality, diversity, inclusion and social justice as the values most relevant to the relationship between the government of Canada and the voluntary sector. In this Accord, the government explicitly recognized the “need to engage the voluntary sector in open, informed and sustained dialogue in order that the sector may contribute its experience, expertise, knowledge, and ideas in developing better public policies and in the design and delivery of programs”. A Code of Good Practice on Policy Dialogue was adopted in October 2002 to ensure increased cooperation, dialogue and input from women’s groups and other voluntary sector organizations at all stages of the public policy process. It proposes measures to enhance the flexibility, responsiveness and consistency of funding arrangements between the federal government and the voluntary sector.

On the occasion of the review of Canada’s 5th Report under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in January 2003, Florence Ievers, Coordinator of Status of Women Canada told the United Nations that women’s groups play a vital role in helping the Canadian government tackle the various forms of discrimination that women face: “…Canadian governments at all levels from municipal to federal are aided by an extensive network of women’s equality-seeking and other non-governmental organizations, such as labour and anti-poverty groups… They play a vital role in helping us to achieve our best practices in building gender equality and meeting our human rights obligations.”

In May 2005 the House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women also underlined that women’s groups play an important role in Canadian democracy, and was very critical of the fact that problems with project funding that “has made it difficult to sustain a women’s movement in Canada and made it increasingly difficult for the women’s movement to advocate on behalf of women” ( p.6)

7. International support for the funding of Women’s Groups

There is global consensus in favour of supporting equality-seeking women’s organizations. In 1995, the Beijing Platform for Action acknowledged that, “through non-governmental organizations and grass-roots organizations, women have been able to articulate their interests and concerns and have placed women’s issues on the national, regional and international agendas”. The document calls on governments to support and collaborate with women’s groups in several different settings, to ensure a better integration of women in the political process, in the development of national machinery for the advancement of women, and in the integration of gender perspectives in legislation, public policies, programmes and projects.

Related action: