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Critics say Harper is failing to address the roots of local and global gender inequality

Harper needs to recognize that women are more than mothers // Trina Moyles
Harper needs to recognize that women are more than mothers // Trina Moyles

The global cry for gender equality has never been louder. Rural Indian women are fighting for farmland, Ugandan and Kenyan women are fighting draconian “anti-miniskirt” laws that criminalize their thighs, and Canadian First Nations and aboriginal womenare fighting for a national inquiry into the tragic deaths and disappearances of more than 1200 indigenous women since the 1980s.

In recent years, Twitter trends like #BringBackOurGirls and #Mansplaining have exploded on the social-media sphere, and almost two million viewers have tuned in to hear Nigerian-born author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s urge the world that “We Should All Be Feminists” in a TEDx Talks video on YouTube.

The United Nations says that ending global poverty is dependent on ending violence against girls and women, while scientists are critically examining the connection between the rights of women land stewards and their increased capacity to adapt to climate change.

Actress Emma Watson had the guts to stand up at the UN Headquarters, only eight months ago, and ask: “How can we effect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation?” (Critics later argued that a wealthy, white female celebrity probably wasn’t the best choice to speak on behalf of the world’s women—though no one could deny that her speech sparked many conversations worldwide.)

But while localized women’s and gender movements all over the world are responding to and challenging inequality, some critics wonder: what role has the Canadian government played on the international scene to address inequity and violence against women? Are the Harper government’s policies supporting global women? Some would say it has certainly strived to support mothers, at the very least.

Five years ago, the Canadian government launched the Muskoka Initiative on Maternal, Newborn and Child Health, soliciting proposals from civil society organizations—also known as non-governmental organizations—for projects focused on improving nutrition and access to maternal healthcare services to prevent maternal and newborn mortality rates. Harper pledged a total of $2.85 billion from 2010 to 2015 towards Muskoka Initiative projects in 10 countries with some of the highest rates of maternal mortality, including Afghanistan, Malawi and South Sudan. To date, they’ve reportedly spent 97 percent of the promised $2.85 billion on select projects that range from training mothers in nutrition and best-feeding practices in Mozambique to building maternal health centres in Bangladesh.

On paper, Canada’s support for women looks substantial. But some of Canada’s leading civil society organizations aren’t convinced that the Muskoka Initiative is getting to the roots of addressing gender inequality.

“It’s great to see the government give so much support to newborn health and the health of mothers,” says Caroline Marrs, director of Gender Justice at Oxfam Canada, a non-profit organization that prioritizes women’s and girl’s rights and poverty prevention. “But from a rights-based perspective, we would like to see more talk about if the interventions of the Muskoka Initiative are listening to women, creating space for them, talking about their needs—and not just as ‘mothers,’ but as women.”

One of the main criticisms of Harper’s Muskoka Initiative is that only a mere 1.24 percent of the billions of dollars spent is delegated to projects supporting family planning services, which includes access to education, counselling, contraceptives and abortion services.

The World Health Organization reports that 13 percent of maternal deaths are related to unsafe abortions, and that 21 million women and girls worldwide have an unsafe abortion every year. In the face of these numbers, some have questioned whether the Muskoka Initiative is exporting political ideology instead of supporting a broad range of life-saving programs.

It has also meant that civil society organizations applying for family planning projects haven’t been as competitive as organizations applying for nutrition or primary health-care projects. Nutrition-focused projects received the bulk of the Muskoka funding. Yet family planning is a need that women often identify and a critical aspect of improving maternal health, according to Marrs.

“We’d love to see a more comprehensive approach [from the Canadian government] that looks at the whole range of women’s health needs,” she emphasizes.

Oxfam Canada, along with a network of Canadian civil society organizations, including the Canadian Council for International Cooperation (CCIC), are also voicing their concerns with the federal budget announcement and allotments for international aid and development.

While the United Nations sets a target goal of 0.7 percent of Gross Domestic Product for wealthy countries to contribute to development assistance, Canada is lagging behind the pack, ranking 16 out of 28 donor countries, committing only 0.24 percent of GDP.

Since 2006, the Harper government has whittled the international development budget down from 0.34 percent to 0.24 percent. By 2013, it dismantled the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) entirely and development was shuffled into the Foreign Affairs portfolio.

Given these events, Oxfam Canada argues that when it comes down to numbers, less than two percent of Canada’s aid budget has gone towards programs that advance women’s rights.

But the Harper government’s cuts to women’s programming haven’t been unique to international development. Based on January 2015 figures from the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, numbers indicate that women’s First Nations and aboriginal organizations across the country have also been cut by seven percent over the past three years.

Earlier this month, the Quebec Native Women’s Association, an organization that has been working with First Nation women for 40 years on education and gender rights initiatives, lost federal funding from Heritage Canada and faces the risk of closing its doors. The news arrives at a time when activists and organizations are calling for a federal investigation into the staggering numbers of murders and disappearances of First Nations and aboriginal women in Canada.

For many, it sends a strong message about the Harper government’s stance on dealing with gender equality: that it isn’t prepared to offer policies that get below the surface and examine root causes of inequity and violence against women.

Federal NDP party leader Tom Muclair recently announced that an NDP government would not only increase international development funding to 0.7 percent of the GDP, but that it would also remove the Conservative’s ban on funding family planning services.

The Liberal Party has also alluded that its platform would support family planning in countries where safe abortion is legal.

Gender inequality issues don’t typically get out the vote for federal elections in Canada, but perhaps a feminist inspired campaign would help take the country by surprise.

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