Canada’s undeclared shift in policy away from women’s rights

Canada’s undeclared shift in policy away from women’s rights

As host of the upcoming G8 summit, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced in January that maternal health was going to be on the agenda. It looked like a golden opportunity for Harper to be seen as a promoter of an important development issue, as well as one that could help him win the trust of Canadian women voters. 


Yet, the Conservative government has refused to include access to safe abortions as part of the maternal health initiative. In addition, during successive terms as prime minister, Harper has worked hard to eliminate the progressive voice of women from the political landscape by eliminating funding for Canadian women’s groups.

So what does this mean? Does this government believe in women’s rights? Evidence suggests it does not.

From the 1993 Vienna Declaration on human rights to the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo and then the Beijing IV World Conference on Women in 1995, the understanding and acknowledgment of women’s rights have been affirmed and reaffirmed by successive Canadian governments of all political stripes.

Women’s rights include all human rights. In addition, it is understood that women’s rights can only be safeguarded when there is a strong commitment against all forms of violence against women and total access to a comprehensive range of services relating to reproductive rights, including access to a safe abortion.

In the 1980s and ’90s, in order to support societal change away from discriminatory practices against women, the Canadian government created programs that allowed a variety of organizations from Canadian civil society to develop a strong and necessary expertise in women’s human rights and reproductive rights both within Canada and abroad.

Most of these organizations used a human rights-based approach to their work. Some were more research-oriented, focusing on aspects of domestic and international law, and others worked with vulnerable women to help them articulate their rights in their own words and then advocate on their own behalf.

The government’s recent actions to remove funding for women’s organizations such as the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women, Association féminine d’éducation et d’action sociale, and MATCH International to name just a few, will clearly affect Canada’s ability to maintain its expertise in the area of women’s human rights.

In addition, it will adversely affect those vulnerable women who relied on local organizations as a source of emotional support and aid, as well as the regional organizations that acted as a networking support between organizations. Defunding also risks the elimination of services to vulnerable women in remote and underprivileged regions of the world, where Canadian non-governmental organizations often worked.

What is surprising is that the amount of funding being removed is not huge, certainly not in comparison with the reported $1 billion security tab for the G8 and G20 summits at the end of the month.

One can only conclude that the Conservative government’s approach is ideologically driven. Since the government refuses to articulate its thinking behind its defunding policies, we are left to reason that it is a willingness to provide development aid based on a list of what it has identified as essential human needs, which it has, however, decoupled from human rights.

This certainly appears to be the case when one examines the statement adopted in Halifax in April by the G8 ministers responsible for international development. In it, they decided to focus on three themes in preparation for the Muskoka, Ont., summit: improving the health of mothers, newborns, and children under five in developing countries.

The language of the statement is striking. Wrapped in the jargon of accountability and cost-effectiveness, the reader is invited to buy into the idea that current international development interventions are not evidence-based, cost-effective, or sustainable, and they need to be fixed. Development assistance is presented as a business. One is left with the impression that effectiveness of the donors matters more than human rights of those in need.

When one reaches the core subject of maternal health, the reader is invited to conceptualize a continuum of care that skips over the crucial importance of women’s reproductive health as an issue of rights. Naturally, development relies heavily on a number of factors such as access to clean water, nutrition, food security, and post-partum care to name a few. But how can one deny the reality of unwanted pregnancies or understand that family planning is part of a woman’s right to health? This is a right that states have a responsibility to fulfil.

The manner by which Harper has most recently instrumentalized women’s rights by molding the maternal health initiative to fit a conservative political and ideological agenda contradicts human rights principles on so many levels.

It is contrary to our commitments under the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. To our knowledge, it was not scrutinized under the new Official Development Assistance Accountability Act, which came into force June 28, 2008. This act requires that official development assistance may be provided only if the competent minister is of the opinion that it is consistent with international human rights standards.

Civil society organizations promoting and protecting women’s rights abroad were not consulted before the initiative became public. And finally, human rights promotion implies a strong support for organizations involved in developing women’s projects at the local level. There are no safeguarding provisions in the maternal health initiative to make sure that the women who were receiving services, through now defunded Canadian women’s organizations, will continue to get access to services.

Harper’s maternal health initiative is being championed as a human development initiative and not a human rights initiative.

Interestingly, but unfortunately, this initiative highlights the fragility and the vulnerability of concepts that are not solidly grounded in human rights principles, or at least seen as complementary to these principles. This sad episode in the long history of the recognition of women’s rights at both the international and domestic levels demonstrates the need for more thinking about human development and human rights-based accountability.

Not all policy options or political ideologies will be compatible with women’s rights as human rights. It is, however, the duty of governments to protect and promote women’s rights at all times and not just when it suits them. It is clear that those of us who are interested in human rights will need to do more work to add to the global understanding of human and women’s dignity, and to prevent the erosion of the fundamental and universal value of human rights in the name of efficiency and effectiveness, and to understand ourselves as not merely consumers but global citizens in the human endeavour.

Lucie Lamarche is the Gordon F. Henderson Research Chair in Human Rights and director of research of the Human Rights Research and Education Centre at the University of Ottawa. This article was co-written with the centre’s executive director Sonya Nigam.

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