“Women in Canada experience more adverse social determinants of health than men. The main reason for this is that women carry more responsibilities for raising children and taking care of housework. Women are also less likely to be working full-time and are less likely to be eligible for unemployment benefits. In addition, women are employed in lower paying occupations and experience more discrimination in the workplace than men. For these reasons, almost every public policy decision that weakens the social safety net has a greater impact on women than on men.”
–Mikkonen and Raphael, Social Determinants of Health: The Canadian Facts
Equality is at the heart of a healthy society, and systemic inequality between men and women hurts us all. Evidence has shown that improved status of women is inextricably linked with poverty reduction, economic growth and social development of society as a whole. Achieving gender equality is not only the right thing to do. It is also the smart thing to do.
The struggle for gender equality has been one of the most important projects of the 20th century, leaving us with many advances, and much work still to be done. Women are still less likely to be working full-time and are less likely to be eligible for unemployment benefits. In addition, women are employed in lower paying occupations and experience more discrimination in the workplace than men. Women are more likely to face violence in and out of the home. Aboriginal women, immigrant and refugee women, queer women and women with disabilities face multiple layers of discrimination. The disproportionate burden of poverty borne by women, the lack of wage parity between men and women, and the persistence of gender-based violence in our society demand our attention.
Gender-based disparities remain a powerful barrier that shapes the options and opportunities of men and women alike from the moment of birth and throughout a lifetime. We're not building a healthy society if fifty percent of us have our rights routinely violated, opportunities routinely denied, and lack equitable control over resources and decision-making.
There is no prescription to bring about greater equality; there is only a process. That process begins with changing the conversation about gender, recognizing that everyone benefits when the status of women improves. Rather than gender neutral (which tends to mean gender blind), policy decisions need to be made with an explicit gender lens and a commitment to gender equality in mind, from idea to implementation to evaluation.
To address the historical and ongoing inequality faced by women, we need to not only invite women's active participation at all levels of decision-making. We also need to revisit our decision-making processes to ensure that our governance structures encourage the inclusive, collaborative approach that makes space for all voices. Programs specifically tailored to the promotion of equality, capacity-building, and full participation of women and girls in civic life will make our institutions more inclusive, responsive, and collaborative.
Just as economic inequality saps the health of all people, rich and poor, gender inequality is toxic to everyone's well-being. Stereotypical gender concepts impose unhealthy roles and expectations on men and women alike, with unhealthy models of masculinity resulting in greater social exclusion, more exposure to violence and greater risk of suicide among men, as well as greater risk of violence against women.
Discrimination against the queer community, meanwhile, stems from these same unhealthy conceptions of gender, and continues to harm far too many members of our community. Evaluating our justice, education, labour, and health systems through a gender lens, and taking action to promote more equitable policies and processes, would benefit all of us.
Areas for Action
I. Human Rights
Social, legal, and educational initiatives can reduce and remedy gender-based violence. We can and should:
- Increase legal literacy initiatives in the community to strengthen social empowerment of women and marginalized groups.
- Push for a national inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women.
- Add gender identity to the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code.
- Provide stable funding to agencies that assist individuals affected by violence;
- Provide mandatory and consistent anti-oppression training to criminal justice workers, including police, prosecutors, judges and others.
II. Poverty Reduction and Economic Opportunity
We can address gender-based disparities in the workforce by introducing initiatives to ensure equal access to quality jobs and to enable households to share both paid and unpaid work. We can and should:
- Ensure every budget or program is analyzed through a gender lens so that the interests of women and the principles of economic equality are reflected. The same sort of analysis should also be done with an eye to equality for other underrepresented groups, in particular First Nations and Métis people.
- Diversify Saskatchewan economy, not only in terms of economic activity, but also in regards to those engaging in that activity, through programs specifically designed to increase employment opportunities for women.
- Introduce pay equity legislation. Saskatchewan is one of only three provinces that lacks such legislation. A 2004 Canadian Department of Justice report gave recommendations for national proactive pay equity legislation that applies to all people. These recommendations have been ignored at the federal level, but could easily be enacted here in Saskatchewan.
- Top up paid maternity leave, similar to how Quebec does, to 70 percent for the first 18 weeks of maternity leave, 8 weeks of parental leave, and 5 weeks of paternity leave.
We can increase access to education for women and girls to strengthen their capacity in their work and social lives, thus improving their overall status. We can and should:
- Prioritize lower tuition, child care for students, and student loans that are more flexible (with a greater portion forgivable)
- Increase incentives and scholarships to encourage girls and women to excel in science and technology, and to overcome glass ceilings in academic achievement.
- Develop an integrated model of early childhood education and care to enable more women to pursue educational and career opportunities, resulting in increased labour-force participation and decreased poverty rates among women and single parents. (See http://www.ryanmei.li/early_childhood.)
IV. Health Care
Health outcomes are determined to a large extent by social circumstances. Improving health outcomes for women is largely dependent on improving their life circumstances: income, employment, education, housing, nutrition. However, there are considerations in health care services that apply specifically to improving equality and autonomy.
As with any services that are insured under the provincial health plan, access to the full range of sexual and reproductive health services should not be limited by geography, social and economic status, or ethnicity. Where access is currently insufficient to the full range of reproductive health services, initiatives in training of personnel, assisting with transportation costs, and overcoming other identified barriers should be undertaken. (For more detail, see our Sexual and Reproductive Health policy statement: www.ryanmei.li/sexual_and_reproductive_health.)
We can and should:
- Develop and implement gender-sensitive training for health professionals in early recognition and support for survivors of violence or sexual assault, particularly for First Nations and Métis women, women with disabilities, and immigrant and refugee women.
- For the benefit of women in rural and remote areas, we need to create incentives to recruit and retain physicians, provide subsidies for patients’ travels, and increase safe houses and shelters for women.
- Social inequality is detrimental to the emotional well-being and mental health of women. Women’s voices, including those who access mental health services, must be included in the conversation to shape policy and improve mental health services to ensure that they meet the specific needs of women.
- Senior women are more likely than senior men to be isolated, to be inactive, and to live in poverty. As well as addressing gender inequities before women reach old age, we need to develop community initiatives that would motivate older women to be active; provide accessible, low-cost community-based activities; and provide greater availability of respite and other support programs for caregivers.
- Design, plan and implement culturally appropriate programs for immigrant and refugee women's health, improve coordination of professional interpretation services, and take action to ensure refugee health services are maintained despite cuts at the federal level.
V. Political and Institutional Participation
There remains a wide gender gap in the political sphere, with Canada ranking 45th for the number of women in Parliament. In Saskatchewan, women make up 50 percent of the population yet occupy only 17% of the seats in the Legislature, a decrease from an already dismal 22% in 2007. The picture is better when we look at the federal NDP, where women comprise nearly 40% of the federal NDP caucus. However, within Saskatchewan, and in particular in the NDP, we can and must do better to promote equal legislative representation from women.
We can and should:
- We should expand the Saskatchewan NDP's "candidate school" initiative to reach not just successful nominees, but also prospective nominees, executive members, and other party activists, with a particular focus on participation from women and members of equity-seeking groups. This would result in smoother nomination races, a larger pool of talent, and an opportunity for mentorship from women and men in caucus to foster the involvement of the next generation of women leaders. Hiring a dedicated organizer for the Saskatchewan New Democratic Women (SNDW) with a focus on recruitment and training of potential candidates would facilitate this process.
- We should adopt the Federal NDP's equity-seeking candidate rule, which requires that there be at least one equity-seeking candidate in a race before a nominating convention can happen.
- Both to attract new candidates, and improve the experience of those who are elected, we need to make sure that the legislature is a supportive and fulfilling environment, with child care, children-friendly meeting space, retreats and skill-building courses, and anti-oppression training for all members to enhance equity in the day-to-day operations of the caucus.
- As has been shown in Manitoba, more female candidates can be key to electoral success. Using some of the approaches above can move us closer to equality and to government. Ultimately, however, this is not just a numbers game, it's about creating the best representative democracy. This means creating a positive political space for female politicians to enact policies that reflect the needs identified by women. Leading the way by developing a platform with innovative policies that demonstrate the NDP’s commitment to gender equality will go a long way to attracting more female candidates, and to actually achieving gender equality.
Achieving gender equality requires renewed effort and intensified political will. Keeping gender equality front-of-mind in policy development and in the democratic process are key to building a healthy society.
Please share your ideas for fostering greater gender equality below, or review and weigh in on other ideas that have been shared with us here.