News that there wouldn’t be a federal leaders’ debate on women’s issues was fairly unsurprising. But it was still disappointing, particularly in light of a damning Status of Women Canada report, recently made public under the Access to Information Act, which paints a disturbing picture.
According to the report, Canada is not faring well when it comes to the pay gap between men and women, as well as support for child care and parental leave. Our country also ranks an abysmal 57th for gender equality when it comes to parliamentary representation, and, despite repeated demands, we continue to lack a national strategy to tackle violence against women.
I expected nothing less from Prime Minister Stephen Harper. With his party’s abysmal record on women’s issues, (including the closure of most Status of Women offices, slashed funding to any programs that focus on advocacy, lobbying, or general research on women’s rights issues, as well as refusal to order a commission on missing and murdered Indigenous women) engaging in such a debate would have reaped absolutely no political benefits for him.
But Thomas Mulcair missed a golden opportunity to remind everyone about many of the NDP’s women-friendly policies, as well as the higher percentage of women the party is running as candidates. Instead of acting like a leader, he followed Harper's lead.
By refusing to take part in a debate on women’s issues, he also denied women who wanted to hear a debate on these topics the opportunity to do so. Sure, Plan B has now been concocted in the form of individual interviews on Sep. 15 with Mulcair, May, and Trudeau (Harper remains notably absent), but nothing can come close to a live debate where candidates hash it out and explain their policies in a more dynamic and comparative way.
While political posturing prevented this debate, we must also address those who questioned the validity and value of holding a women’s debate at all. There seems to be a lingering notion that a debate on women’s issues is somehow redundant in an era of glorious and hard-earned gender equality. Wouldn’t a debate for all Canadians be just as useful to women voters, given that most electoral issues concern everyone?
Child care, pay inequality, reproductive freedom, and domestic violence are just some issues that overwhelmingly affect women and need more than just lip service paid to them.
The last time there was a federal leaders’ debate on women’s issues was in 1984. One can argue that in the past 30 years much has happened to improve women’s status in Canada, but there are still far too many unseen and unacknowledged inequalities. We deserve a few hours during a ridiculously long 11-week campaign for our political leaders to both identify these issues and commit to improving them through concrete actions and policies.
It’s easy for some to dismiss the demand for a women’s debate as just a few radical feminists harping for their time in the sun. As intersectional feminists have noted, the privileged and less affected always feel excluded in equality movements because it’s the first time they don’t have the loudest voice.
Here are some facts for those people. While women make up 52 percent of the Canadian population, they still are under-represented. For the past decade, Equal Voice, Canada’s only national, multi-partisan organization dedicated to the election of more women, has been tracking gender representation in Parliament, provincial and territorial legislatures, and city councils across the country. While there has been progress, the findings clearly reveal unequal representation.
Studies have also shown that women care about different issues. Without proper representation, public policy will never accurately reflect our concerns. Up for Debate, an alliance of 175 groups pushing for a women’s debate, has been instrumental in the past few weeks in raising awareness about why it’s necessary.
Those quick to question the need for such a debate fail to understand that certain policy issues inevitably affect women much more than men. Not only do women continue to earn less than men for the same full-time work, face poverty more often, and do twice as much unpaid work at home, but women who have children earn between 12 and 20 per cent less than those who don’t. Given that 73 per cent of women with children under the age of 16 living at home were employed as of 2009, compared to 39 per cent three decades ago, a significant number of people are affected by this very specific inequality, one which needs to be addressed and rectified. This income disadvantage in Canada also extends across professions.
Though child care is in many cases an issue all parents should be interested in, the stark reality is that child care responsibilities still fall largely to women, who spend more than twice the time doing unpaid child care that men do, according to 2010 figures from Statistics Canada.
Gender equality is still unfinished business in this country. Taking a mere few hours to address these concerns is not pandering to a special interest fringe group; it’s acknowledging half this country’s concerns, questions and priorities, and allocating time and effort to address them.
It’s a shame our federal political leaders still seem to have a hard time understanding that.