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Kept women

After millions in federal dollars and decades of progress, it's getting hard for feminist groups to justify their existence

Andrea Mrozek - April 10, 2006

It didn't exactly offer the drama of, say, the Persons Case. When Canada's government agency, Status of Women Canada, headed in March to the United Nations 50th session on (naturally) the Status of Women--timed to coincide with the 95th International Women's Day--they came armed with a report on the work they do helping Canadian females. "Canada's national women's machinery has conducted regional, national and online consultations, focusing on accountability issues, including gender equality indicators," read the delegation's statement. Hardly stirring stuff.

But fighting for women's rights using polls and paperwork seems to be what the agency (with its $23-million budget last year) is all about these days. In 1973, the Royal Commission for the Status of Women recommended that women's groups with a feminist outlook receive federal funding to help women achieve equality. Status of Women Canada is the result. But with millions of dollars being spent on these groups every year, Canadians might well wonder what these organizations have achieved.

We've all heard that working women only earn about 76 cents or so for every dollar their male co-workers take home (a statistic that neatly ignores differences in salary negotiating skills and career transience). But, when it comes to fighting for equality, women's groups seem focused on less direct concerns. Nor have their efforts, whatever you may think of them, been particularly successful. "The biggest driving issue, as well as accomplishment for us in the past couple of years has been on the issue of child care," says Paulette Senior, CEO of the YWCA, referring to the national day-care program passed by the Liberal government last year. Unfortunately for the YWCA, which received $153,453 in federal funding in 2003-2004, Canadians recently elected a new government, in large part on a promise to dismantle the proposed national child-care arrangement.

Senior also names low-cost housing and ending violence against women as top YWCA priorities. But statistics show that federal funding of women's groups has achieved nothing in recent memory to decrease the number of women who are victims of violence. The 2005 study, Family Violence in Canada, by the Federal Family Violence Initiative, notes that domestic violence rates for women and men have remained relatively unchanged. "Rates of spousal violence by a current or previous partner in the 5 year period were 7% for women and 6% for men, representing an estimated 653,000 women and 546,000 men."

That's not much to show for groups that received at least $60 million in federal funding between 1997 and 2003. That figure comes courtesy of access to information documents obtained by Real Women of Canada, the Ottawa-based group that bills itself as the voice of the "alternative" women's movement. Gwen Landolt, Real Women's vice-president, believes that while some federally funded women's groups work on issues of domestic violence and equal treatment of women, their purpose is superfluous. Many others, she says, are pursuing a different agenda altogether. After all, demanding low-cost housing specifically for women won't make them any more equal to men. "They're acting as agents of change to promote their radical feminist agenda," says Landolt. "Their theory is that women are oppressed by the patriarchy." She insists the groups lack any real grassroots support, but rather are front organizations for governments and unions. Landolt's group, by contrast, was delisted from federal funding in 1996 because officials did not qualify it as an equality-seeking group. Today Real Women claims 55,000 members.

In a country where abortion is legal, divorce laws are liberalized, and the majority of university graduates are women, as are four of the nine Supreme Court judges, feminist groups have been forced to find unique reasons for sticking around.

Kathy Marshall is executive director of Womenspace, a group dedicated to empowering women through the use of the Internet. Womenspace received $441,800 in federal cash in 2003-2004 and claims to have 2,000 people on its mailing list. Their most recent success? According to Marshall, it was ensuring that the "language of women's equality rights" was included in the World Summit on the Information Society Declaration (the WSIS is a UN-backed initiative designed to ensure that people around the world benefit from the Internet age). Other than that, she says, "we do a number of training sessions for women's organizations across the country to help them embrace technology."

The Ottawa-based National Association of Women and the Law is using its $474,879 in funding not only to oppose the implementation of misogynist sharia law in Canada, but to fight for "transgendered rights" in the workplace and society.

More articles by Andrea Mrozek