From Green Left Weekly:Monday, October 29, 2012
Socialist Alliance activist and feminist Liah Lazarou gave the speech below to Adelaide’s Reclaim the Night rally on October 26.
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I’d like to say a big thank you to the Reclaim the Night Collective for organising this important event and everybody who is here tonight to reclaim the streets and to fight against the violence and sexism women face on a daily basis. Tonight is our night, to unite as women and to bring attention to the struggles of our sisters, mothers, aunts, cousins, grandmothers and the structural oppression that is so embedded in our everyday lives.
Tonight has come in a really interesting time. It has come when the recent political landscape has been suddenly concerned with the language of feminism, no more evident than when Julia Gillard proclaimed Tony Abbott a misogynist, something I’m sure many of us were delighted to finally see and hear and a message that spoke to many of us – Tony Abbott the misogynist called out in parliament for what he really is.
But what was hardly reported was that on the same day the Senate passed through a new law cutting single parent payments by between $56 and $150 a week, which will mostly affect women, women from the already marginalised sections of our society and putting them more at risk of violence. As a single mother myself, I was outraged at this blatant contradiction because further entrenching poverty is violence against women.
So when we rejoice at Julia Gillard’s speech against sexism, let us take it for what is really is. Fighting against sexism is not about making one speech in parliament and in the same day attacking some of the most vulnerable women in our society.
The reason Julia Gillard was able to make that speech was because of the feminist movements of the past. It was because of the feminist freedom fighters who came before us and who struggled and fought for women’s liberation.
Women have been saying for a long, long time that discrimination against women and sexism does not just exist in a bubble: we are subject to oppressive gender norms at all levels of society and it is completely institutionalised in the home, the workforce, the media, the judiciary, religious and educational institutions and of course in parliament.
Today women still only earn 82% of a males wage, the majority of unpaid work is done by women,
most sexual violence is perpetrated by men against women, 1 in 3 women will experience intimate partner violence in her life time, violence is the leading contributor to death, disability and illness of women aged 15 to 44 years in Victoria, the police don’t take women’s claims of violence and harassment seriously and that most rape cases that go to court don’t end up with a conviction.
On the back of the horrific Jill Meagher crime and the recent murder of a young South Australian woman by her partner, we have seen rising concerns around rape and male violence reigniting public concern around women’s safety.
But more CCTV cameras will not stop violence against women. Male violence begins in the home, in the institution of the family. The cornerstone of class society which treats women like property, allowing them to be owned, used and exploited. This is where our first conceptions of sexism are learned and this is reinforced by the sexualisation and objectification of women and girls and by our sexist corporate media.
For decades we have been sold the myth that feminism is no longer relevant. That we have gained equality. We know this to be false. We know that this is false and that it works to stifle our voices and our ability to be organised and fight back.
A new study on violence against women, conducted over four decades in 70 countries, reveals the mobilisation of feminist movements is more important for change than the wealth of nations, left-wing political parties, or the number of women politicians. So the onus is on us. It is up to us to keep coming out on the streets and to create a strong feminist movement.
Feminism is not just about calling out sexism. We need a feminism which makes real demands. We need to create a feminist movement that aspires for real change, which challenges the exploitation and oppression of women and of all people by the wealthy minority and the system which profits from our suffering. Solutions will come from women coming together, educating and organising towards this end for there is nothing more empowering than the act of solidarity and women involved in collective action together. Unity is strength. Until we have created a world where we are not attacked, abused and discriminated against because of our gender, where gender is irrelevant and we are recognised with respect as human beings, our struggle continues.
Until there is no wage gap, until we have complete control over our bodies, until the police and the judicial system takes domestic violence and sexual assault seriously, until there are adequate facilities for all women in need, until there are compulsory education programs against violence, until we create a culture where men are taught to respect women, until we do not invade other countries and kill our sisters, until no refugee is locked in detention centres, until our indigenous sisters have their culture respected and true land rights, until we have a safe climate future and our global sisters are no longer the victims of the big polluters who are destroying the earth and its ecosystems and until there is no more violence in the street and in the home…
Until then our struggle continues. But I believe that if we fight, we can win!
I know everybody’s tired of it and of him. But questions linger and the post mortems are just as, or more important than, the explosion of media reporting that accompanies the events. We all know how bad that was. Except for this, and I’m not sure if it counts since it’s on the blogs and not in print – John Cruikshank prolly doesn’t even know it’s there.
The post mortems are threatening to be equally bad, even when of the more, er, “thoughtful” kind. Take this from The Globe and Mail:
In 1941, American psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley published a seminal book about psychopaths called The Mask of Sanity, in which he described an intelligent and cunning person skilled at manipulating others and indifferent to their pain. A man like this, Dr. Cleckley explained, finds no real meaning in love or horror or humour, as if “colour blind” to human feeling.
Dr. Cleckley used interviews, observation and medical records to learn about his patients, but today, brain imaging offers scientists a new way to peer behind the mask. A growing number of them now see psychopathy as a neurodevelopmental disorder, one in which a combination of genetic and environmental factors, such as neglect or poor bonding with parents, lead to deficits in the brain. And if biology is to blame, can society hold the psychopath responsible?
The brain deficits that neuroscientists have documented affect the ability of psychopaths to feel emotions and learn from their mistakes – as if they have a learning disability that impairs their emotional development, says Kent Kiehl, a neuroscientist at the University of New Mexico. The differences have been seen in the brain images of children as young as 5.
There is much that I find interesting and important in these theories and findings. Including that it might be quite beside the point to “blame” and punish psychopaths – though it’s still important to find humane ways to protect ourselves from them. But what they almost always leave out, as in this case, are questions about gender and race. Perhaps that comes later for scientists and most media types but I think the issues need to be addressed now.
Why are criminal “psychopaths” most often male? Why are their victims most often female (and children)? If we remain obsessed by the neurobiological, importantand intriguing as it is, we fail to properly address the fact that psychopathology results from a complex process involving not just the biological but also the social and environmental.
Cops miss this too, even when they acknowledge the interconnections. For instance, The FBI produced a monograph on serial murder after a “multi-disciplinary” symposium on the topic held in San Antonio in 2005. Here’s something the monograph says about causality and serial killing:
Serial murderers, like all human beings, are the product of their heredity, their upbringing, and the choices they make throughout development.
Though the monograph does discuss this in somewhat more complex terms like “environment” it never really gets beyond the issue of “upbringing” within the family. It never gets to the “social” at all, beyond pointing out that serial murders are present across racial and socioeconomic divides. When it addresses the myth that serial killers are (mostly) white males, it explains how that is not so in terms of race but never deals with the issue of gender.
I’m thinking there weren’t any feminists at the symposium. A feminist might ask why male psychopathy more often leads to serial death than female psychopathy. Might also ask why the victims are more often women, especially when murder is combined with sexual assault. A feminist might think certain social divisions need to be investigated. Like women’s inequality. Like the objectification and sexification of women. Like the violent images of women’s victimhood so beloved in the Western world that they comprise a multi-billion dollar industry – and not just in porn. Like the vulnerability often imposed on women by race and poverty. Like the masculinization of power.
But while we’re on race and poverty. One thing that I do like about the FBI monograph is that it points out how rare serial murdering is.
Serial murder is a relatively rare event, estimated to comprise less than one percent of all murders committed in any given year. However, there is a macabre interest in the topic that far exceeds its scope and has generated countless articles, books, and movies.
We’ve certainly experienced that in Canada this past week. There isn’t a way to diminish the suffering of the Lloyd and Comeau families or the tragedy of the deaths of these sisters and daughters. But their deaths and the prurient and sensational interest in Colonel Williams and others like him does diminish our aptitude for further examination of the lives and suffering of others. For instance, apart from a few brief mentions, does anyone seem to care much for the women who survived attacks by Williams? That is, apart from Antonia Zerbisias. And why isn’t the media all over the stories of missing and murdered Aboriginal women. If Williams had chosen from among them, would anybody have noticed? From Amnesty International Canada:
According to a Canadian government statistic, young Indigenous women are five times more likely than other women of the same age to die as the result of violence.
Indigenous women have long struggled to draw attention to violence within their own families and communities. Canadian police and public officials have also long been aware of a pattern of racist violence against Indigenous women in Canadian cities – but have done little to prevent it.
The pattern looks like this:
- Racist and sexist stereotypes deny the dignity and worth of Indigenous women, encouraging some men to feel they can get away with acts of hatred against them.
- Decades of government policy have impoverished and broken apart Indigenous families and communities, leaving many Indigenous women and girls extremely vulnerable to exploitation and attack.
- Many police forces have failed to institute necessary measures – such as training, protocols and accountability mechanisms – to ensure that officers understand and respect the Indigenous communities they serve. Without such measures, police too often fail to do all they can to ensure the safety of Indigenous women and girls whose lives are in danger.
What about our stolen sisters? A new report has added 62 more names to a growing list of missing or slain aboriginal women and girls across Canada.
The report by the Native Women’s Association of Canada pegs the total as at least 582. The data is drawn from the last three decades, with 153 of the cases occurring between 2000 and 2008. Most of the women in the database were killed, while 115 are still missing.
I challenge the mainstream media to make a big event of these numbers and the lost lives of these women.
Stephen Harper certainly won’t.
Read this and substitute the words “Paul Bernardo” for “Russell Williams”:
The [Paul] Bernardo case, like every similar investigation, had its share of human error. But this is not a story of human error or lack of dedication or investigative skill. It is a story of systemic failure.Virtually every interjurisdictional serial killer case including Sutcliffe (the Yorkshire Ripper) and Black (the cross-border child killer) in England, Ted Bundy and the Green River Killer in the United States and Clifford Olsen in Canada, demonstrate the same problems and raise the same questions. And always the answer turns out to be the same – systemic failure. Always the problems turn out to be the same, the mistakes the same, and the systemic failures the same.
Perhaps the most important thing that Campbell pointed out in his report was this:
What is needed is a system of case management for major and interjurisdictional serial predator investigations, a system that corrects the defects demonstrated by this and so many similar cases. A case management system is needed that is based on cooperation, rather than rivalry, among law enforcement agencies. A case management system is needed that depends on specialized training, early recognition of linked offences, co-ordination of interdisciplinary and forensic resources, and some simple mechanisms to ensure unified management, accountability and co-ordination when serial predators cross police borders.
As Antonia Zerbisias pointed out in a column at The Star as long ago as February, various detachments of the Ontario Provincial Police along with Belleville police did no such communicating and coordinated case response. Why not?
At the time that Paul Bernardo was operating, there was no ViCLAS automated crime linkage system in place. As Campbell pointed out in his report, such a system would likely have alerted police to the fact that rapes being committed in Scarborough, Ontario were related to rapes in St. Catharines. There was no system that would recognize the wider public interest in catching a serial rapist, interest that went beyond that of one particular community.
It’s my understanding that there are such systems in place now. But the police have to use them. Did anyone in Tweed or Belleville or Brighton enter information into the system that should have linked the sexual assaults of Laurie Massicotte and “Jane Doe” with the rape and murder of Corporal Marie-France Comeau? What about the series of break and enters in these communities that involved the theft of “lingerie” and other personal items of the women who lived there? Given that police take such crimes to be so unimportant and trivial, that has to be unlikely.
I want to know. Given the slow speed at which the police and our justice system incorporate the knowledge that could lead to saving the lives and bodily and personal integrity of women, we can’t get the answers to these questions soon enough. Four days of courtroom time this week did not give these answers, or even ask the questions. Much as it troubles and tires me to say this, we need a public inquiry conducted by someone with the integrity of an Archie Campbell. Are we going to get one? Or have we been so mesmerized by visions of the Colonel wearing stolen underwear that we have lapsed into our own private comas? As Campbell said, so many years ago:
There must be a public recognition that these problems are not just problems for the police and law enforcement communities. They are problems for the community as a whole. A commitment to correct them is necessary in order to guard against another case like this.
I feel liked chopped liver & I can’t even comprehend how the little one is feeling. Now if I could get a message out to the masses it would be-if you survive a violent act of sex don’t report it, just run for cover & find your own protection minus the police & the system they represent.
So. How’s this for a military culture that’s respectul to women? How can we even say that in the same sentence? I thought this would be a huge story. It wasn’t. We like Russ Williams better because we think we can’t explain him. The MSM wouldn’t even publish the more egregious cartoon because they found it too offensive. Ha! What about this week?
The military has launched a purge of its classroom materials after several offensive cartoons, including some featuring women in degrading sexual situations, were used in courses for soldiers headed to Afghanistan.The drawings were part of presentations provided to instructors at the Canadian Defence Academy in Kingston, Ont.
One cartoon, intended as an example of reading body language, shows a woman at a bar piled with empty glasses engaged in a sexual act with a man on a barstool. The caption reads: “How to tell when you don’t have to buy her any more drinks. . . . ”
How to tell when you don’t have to buy her more drinks? Prelude to rape.
The officer in charge of “Conduct After Capture” training acknowledged the cartoons are offensive.
But Lt.-Col. Lloyd Gillam said he believes the illustrations appeared only in draft versions of the training materials and never made it into the classroom, where there are male and female students.
Ah, so they were only in the draft versions. So they are indicative only of what the military represents but won’t acknowledge they represent. Lest someone take issue. Appearances you know, appearances. And they weren’t used in co-ed company. Why is that important? Ah, so women can be deluded into thinking they are respected while the porno joking goes on among the jocks in their offices and locker rooms. Well, that’s alright then.
Colonel Williams can’t be explained? Oh yes he can. And we’d better explain him and the men like him and the systemic sexism that aids in his development and recreation. Because we’re spawning guys like him by the barrel every day. Of course, not just in the military.
In his 2008 article “Facism Anyone?”, Laurence W. Britt enumerated the key elements of facism under well-known historical regimes such as Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal, Papadopoulos’s Greece, Pinochet’s Chile, and Suharto’s Indonesia. Number 5 on Britt’s list:
Rampant sexism. Beyond the simple fact that the political elite and the national culture were male-dominated, these regimes inevitably viewed women as second-class citizens. They were adamantly anti-abortion and also homophobic. These attitudes were usually codified in Draconian laws that enjoyed strong support by the orthodox religion of the country, thus lending the regime cover for its abuses.
Stephen Harper began his CON regime by cutting funding to the Ministry of the Status of Women and to countless women’s groups across the country, including the highly successful Court Challenges Programme which LEAF had used effectively to challenge government actions and legislation that it believed breached the Charter rights of women. Of course, Harper also gave us the charming Helena Guergis to perform as his talking doll in the Ministry, though she has proven less than charming.
But let’s have a look at more recent HarperCON activities that fit into the “blatant sexism” category.
Let’s begin with the federal budget for 2010. Most commentators said it was the “do nothing” budget but of course, all budgets do something, even if by neglect. Professor Kathleen Lahey from Queen’s University Law School did the math. Here’s her over-all assessment:
The big picture: Women are half the population in Canada and nearly half the official labour force – but still do 62% of all unpaid work, and receive only 40% of after-tax incomes.
This Budget: The government claims that it is providing one last $19 billion ‘stimulus’ package this year, shorn of new tax cuts or spending items. This is highly misleading. New corporate tax cuts and continued huge PIT and GST cuts bring the total to $41.9 billion for 2010/11.
Gender gaps: This $41.9 billion is being delivered in forms that will benefit far more in Budget 2010: men than women, widen gender gaps even further, and continue to drive up poverty rates among women and single parents.
Of course, women were unattended to in the “Stimulus Budget” as well:
Budget 2009 not only fails to target the most vulnerable, but it seems to have been carefully crafted to exclude women from as much of the $64 billion in new deficit-financed spending and tax cuts as possible … [see how]
Then there’s the issue of child care. HarperCON carefully eliminated the 5 billion dollar daycare agreement that the Paul Martin government had reached with the provinces before it lost the 2006 election and replaced it with a $100 per month per child benefit that Jim Flaherty said was meant to emphasize “choice” for families with daycare aged children – in terms of social policy conservatives have always insisted that individuals be responsible for the full costs of reproduction and the tiny benefit they extended did little to ameliorate those costs for working families or single parent families, most of which are headed by women. In his most recent budget Flaherty added $100 per month per child under the age of six. I don’t think there’s anybody who believes that will be truly helpful.
In addition, the money Flaherty is extending is counted as taxable income in the hands of lower income parents so its true value is actually less than its face value:
Because the child care allowance will increase their income, families will pay more federal and provincial/territorial income taxes, while at the same time receiving less from geared-to-income benefits such as the federal Canada Child Tax Benefit and GST credit as well as provincial/territorial child benefits and tax credits. Thus the true value of the child care scheme will be considerably less than its $1,200 a year face value – significantly less in the case of many working poor and modest-income families, who will get a smaller after-tax benefit than middle- and upper-income families. One-earner families with a parent who stays home will do better than lone-parent and two-earner families. But even for one-earner couples with children, those who earn the most would get to keep more of the proposed benefit. [here]
The women of Canada thank you for that cool “choice” Jim. Helena Guergis seems to have another solution, though she won’t give details:
Then why did status of women minister Helena Guergis tell Canadian delegates at the 54th United Nations Commission on the Status of Women this month that Israel has such “strong family values there that they don’t need a national daycare plan! Wouldn’t it be great to figure out how they’re doing that?”
On Monday, at the most heavily covered Status of Women Committee meeting ever, Liberal status of women critic Anita Neville tried to pin the beleaguered Guergis down on what she meant by “family values.” [more]
Onward then. Over the course of the prorogation HarperCON’s mouthpiece, Bev Oda (he sure knows how to get women to work for him) announced that her government would work to promote maternal health by targetting foreign aid for this purpose. What could be wrong with that? Well, in the first place, Flaherty’s budget will freeze foreign aid next year and that just can’t help. On top of that, both Oda and Lawrence Cannon have now made it clear that “maternal health care” does NOT include contraception and access to safe abortion. Cannon says the government’s initiative on maternal health care is mean to save lives, not provide birth control.
These are actually contradictory policies. The best way to reduce the abortion rate is to provide sex education and contraception. That much seems obvious. Perhaps less obvious (to men) is the fact that when women get pregnant and don’t want to continue their pregnancies, they have always and always will find ways to terminate them. Unfortunately, in countries where abortion isn’t legal or accessible, this leads to unsafe abortions and the deaths of approximately 68,000 women worldwide, per year. When mothers die their children have an increased risk of dying within a few years. The government has also failed to extend funding to the International Planned Parenthood Federation through CIDA. So the question for HarperCON is, do pregnant women have a right to live? Just to cite an obvious recent example, what about the women of Haiti?
A lack of education, limited access to reproductive health care, and the rape and violence that Haitian women face have led to a country with a staggeringly poor set of vital statistics. These include a high maternal and infant mortality rate and a high illiteracy rate, with only half the population able to read and write. Because of the high birth rate and abject poverty, hundreds of thousands of children are given up to over-burdened orphanages. Before the quake, an estimated 380,000 children had been placed in just 167 orphanages and care centers; that number of orphans, observers say, may have doubled as a result of the quake and could now be as many as one million!
HarperCON isn’t offering real help to boost maternal health in its foreign aid policy. What about the health of Canadian women and infants? Well, unsurprisingly, the money isn’t forthcoming here either. The Canada Prenatal Nutrition Programme, for instance, has been effective in helping women who suffer from extremes of poverty, isolation, abuse and addiction to improve outcomes for their newborns. But the Programme hasn’t had a funding boost since 1999. As Dean Beeby reports,
After a decade of inflation, that represents an effective cut of $4 million, without accounting for population growth. And spending in 2008-09 was down by $200,000 from the previous year, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, which runs the program.
Add to that the fact that neither the government nor the media has had anything to say about a recent report in the Canadian Medical Association Journal that fetal and infant mortality rates are 2.7% higher among Inuit women than elsewhere in the country and you should get some sense of the depth of HarperCON’s commitment to the health of mothers and their infants in this country.
Another way of helping women in developing countries to stay alive would be an effective strategy for combatting violence against women. HarperCON seems aware that they should have such a commitment, they just don’t take it seriously. Through CIDA, Canada has invested $15 million dollars into a campaign against sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo:
An internal Canadian government report obtained by The Globe and Mail concluded that Canada was spending too much money on T-shirts, vests, caps, cardboard folders and gaudy posters while failing to make progress on the bigger issues of prevention and justice. Ms. Bihamba chuckled grimly as she described the foreign- aid projects. The simple problem with the campaign, she said, is that most perpetrators of sexual violence are illiterate – they can’t read the printed messages.
This despite the fact that gender violence blocks progress in every major development target.
… violence–from rape during armed conflicts to domestic violence–is a leading cause of death and disability among women of all ages, and costs nations billions of dollars as it drains public resources and lowers economic productivity.
In his own country, PM Harper indicated in the Speech from the Throne that his government intends to support a Private Member’s Bill to abolish the long-gun registry – one small measure that has actually had some impact in preventing and intervening in domestic violence against women. And there’s little doubt that he will re-introduce the crime legislation that includes increased and extended mandatory minimum jail sentences for certain crimes including small-time drug offences. That will mean more Aboriginal and African Canadian women in jail for longer periods of time (men too) and discrimination against other vulnerable groups as well. [link to Facebook Note]
The women of Canada have no reason to be grateful to HarperCON and every reason to protest its actions while it remains the government of this country. Even more reason to be active and stay active in every movement they can find that wants to oust the creep and his coterie in the next election – according to some pundits, not far off.
Women are the majority of the world’s farmers, but are often forbidden from owning the land they tend to every day, or accessing the credit they need to invest in those farms and make them productive. Women care for the world’s sick, but women and girls are less likely to get treatment when they are sick. Women raise …the world’s children, but too often receive inadequate care when they give birth. And as a result, childbirth remains a leading cause of death and injury to women worldwide. Women rarely cause armed conflicts, but they always suffer their consequences. And when warring sides sit at one table to negotiate peace, women are often excluded, even though it is their future and their children’s future that is being decided.
from US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Remarks at the UN Commission on the Status of Women
From Ms Rodham Clinton’s speech at the UN 4th Conference on Women in Beijing (1995):
… for too long, the history of women has been a history of silence. Even today, there are those who are trying to silence our words. But the voices of this conference and of the women at Huairou must be heard loudly and clearly:
It is a violation of human rights when babies are denied food, or drowned, or suffocated, or their spines broken, simply because they are born girls.
It is a violation of human rights when women and girls are sold into the slavery of prostitution for human greed — and the kinds of reasons that are used to justify this practice should no longer be tolerated.
It is a violation of human rights when women are doused with gasoline, set on fire, and burned to death because their marriage dowries are deemed too small.
It is a violation of human rights when individual women are raped in their own communities and when thousands of women are subjected to rape as a tactic or prize of war.
It is a violation of human rights when a leading cause of death worldwide among women ages 14 to 44 is the violence they are subjected to in their own homes by their own relatives.
It is a violation of human rights when young girls are brutalized by the painful and degrading practice of genital mutilation.
It is a violation of human rights when women are denied the right to plan their own families, and that includes being forced to have abortions or being sterilized against their will.
If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all.
[This post will be updated with links]
Six months ago I explained the dearth of posts at my blog by posting this from Chris Hedges:
A culture that cannot distinguish between reality and illusion dies. And we are dying now. We will either wake from our state of induced childishness, one where trivia and gossip pass for news and information, one where our goal is not justice but an elusive and unattainable happiness, to confront the stark limitations before us, or we will continue our headlong retreat into fantasy.
I agreed with Chris then and couldn’t agree more after a week of hearing, seeing and trying not to listen very much to stories about Tiger Woods’ extramarital affairs and minor car accident. Six months ago, I couldn’t think what part, even what very small part, I could play waking people up. So much wrong, so much to do, so many people really wanting “something” different but not knowing what or how to get it anyway, so many victories for darkness, so much fragmentation, so little time, too much space. I believe many more people want “justice” than are able to figure out how to articulate their desire in the first place; and certainly not how to make it so in the second.
Recently, two US Senators and the American Conference of Bishops prompted some questions and I began to formulate something like a coherent response, if not exactly an answer.
In 1973 the Supreme Court of the United States decided the case of Roe v. Wade. In a nutshell, necessarily simple, they decided that a woman may abort a pregnancy for any reason up to the point of fetal viability. No doubt Roe v. Wade was a victory for women but it was far from a straightforward one, in part due to America’s constitutional system and in part because of the wording of the decision itself. The definition of “viability” has continued to be a contentious issue for one thing; for another, ensuing state restrictions on abortion, when litigated, made important incursions on the territory staked out in the case. One thing is clear, however: the decision was never accepted by rightwing, Conservative Christians and the people who represent them. The onslaught has been continuous, successful enough and often devious – as in the very recent activity of the US Conference of Bishops in negotiation with House representatives trying to get a healthcare reform deal. Voila Stupak/Pitts. What women were thought to have won they have had to win (and lose) over and over again since 1973. Perhaps that victory has never been as threatened as it is right now. It’s important to see that the threat comes not just from the “wingnut” right but also from among anti-choice Democrats – once touted as the natural allies of feminist objectives.
The history of reproductive rights in Canada is more than a little different. In 1988, in R. v. Morgentaler, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the entire section of the Criminal Code that criminalized abortion and there has been no replacement of that law. Incursions on women’s reproductive rights have occurred less visibly via hospital boards that refuse to permit abortions at Catholic hospitals or hospitals controlled by other religious denominations; via supply and demand problems respecting the availability of abortions in the healthcare system – some doctors refuse to perform abortions; because some doctors or hospital boards have imposed their own limits on when, in a term of pregnancy, they will perform abortions; and because of the unaddressed accessibility problems of rural and First nations women.
In some ways, the difficulties that American women experience in trying to access full reproductive rights are more visible. But in many ways they parallel the problems experienced by Canadian women. The Stupak/Pitts amendment seemed to come out of nowhere. There have been several points in the process of trying to achieve healthcare reform when the abortion issue has been raised but it doesn’t seem that anyone expected it to come out of negotiations with Nancy Pelosi, a couple of cultish Christian congressmen and the Conference of Bishops. But there it is, the congressmen were ready and willing, the bishops pounced and the Democrats caved. Some of those same Democrats who supported the amendment then went ahead and voted against the reform bill! And what did the Dems gain by supporting the amendment? The vote of one Republican (reprobate). That’s right folk. One.
We haven’t seen anything quite so dramatic in Canada – a few slippery Conservatives have tried to pass disguised private members bills by us but always unsuccessfully. The point is though, the rightwing is there, more than ready and more than willing if not quite so able, thus far, to pounce in just the way that Stupak and Pitts, a whole bunch of Reprobates and more than a few Democrats just did. Witness the comments of Conservative MP Maurice Vellacott just a few weeks ago:
“a growing body of research reveals significant health problems caused by abortion,” including breast cancer, cervical injury, uterine perforations, hemorrhaging and infections.
He said further that pro-life women view abortion as “part of a male agenda to have women more sexually available”.
Following on Mr. Vellacott’s comment, this exchange took place in the House of Commons:
Mme Lise Zarac (LaSalle-Émard, Lib.): Monsieur le Président, le député de Saskatoon-Wanuskewin a récemment émis des commentaires sur l’avortement qui insultent et dénigrent les femmes. Le député fait des affirmations qui sont médicalement inexactes pour hausser son programme idéologique moral.
La ministre de la Santé dénoncera-t-elle les croyances de son collègue au sujet du droit des femmes de choisir?
Hon. Helena Guergis (Minister of State (Status of Women), CPC)
Hon. Helena Guergis (Minister of State (Status of Women), CPC): Mr. Speaker, I note for the member that all members of Parliament in the House are required to have their opinion. It does not mean it is the opinion of the cabinet.
Hon. Anita Neville (Winnipeg South Centre, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, it looks like the muzzles are off. The Conservatives are sounding like Reform Party extremists.
The member for Saskatoon-Wanuskewin’s comments are completely degrading to women. He claims that abortion causes ‘a greater risk of breast cancer’ and he asserts that ‘abortion is part of a male agenda to have women more sexually available.’ His comments show an odious attitude toward women.
Will the Minister of Justice stand up for women and denounce these vile comments?
Hon. Helena Guergis (Minister of State (Status of Women), CPC): Mr. Speaker, I again will note for the member that each member of the House is able to have their own opinion. It does not mean it represents the government.
What I will highlight is that this government under the leadership of this Prime Minister has made significant investments in Status of Women Canada. We have three pillars of focus: economic security, violence against women and women in leadership roles.
We also have the highest percentage of women in cabinet in Canada’s history and the highest level of funding at Status of Women Canada, the highest level in Canada’s history with an increase in the number of grass root organizations that are now able to receive funding to support the most vulnerable women in Canadian society.
Guergis would not renounce Vellacott’s statement even though they were incorrect and even though they were degrading to women. Apparently she believes that the presence in this government of a larger number of women will suffice to shut women’s mouths even if those representatives are not advocating for them. And she is not averse to lying. This government has stolen funds from Status of Women and has done absolutely nothing to guarantee women’s economic security – remember the governments attempts to make inroads on pay equity in the public service last year?
But we cannot blame all these betrayals on the CONS alone. Liberal and NDP members have also been willing to turn their backs on the women who elect them.
For instance. The much discussed private members bill to do away with Canada’s long gun registry. It’s a classic rightwing hot button issue and in case not many people have noticed, it’s contradictory as hell alongside the usual “law and order” kvelling done by the nuts. Crazy like foxes they are though. As someone who’s noticed has pointed out, though the “right to bear arms” is a classic American cris de coeur of the Christian right, it’s been adopted by the Canadian right too. Why? It provides a brilliant wedge between rural and urban constituencies and helps to frame other, conservative v. “liberal” debates. It’s also a divisive issue between men and women – even rural women are overwhelmingly pro-registry. It’s been estimated that, in tight races, the gun registry is “vote-determinating for about 5% of the voting public”. It’s not stupid, crazy people who use this issue to their advantage. But it just might be stupid people who ignore it.
I’ve also watched how the issue divides “progressive” men and women. If you can achieve this political result simply by introducing a system to register (not “control” mind you, just register) you’ve gained a lot of ground on the cheap. Similarly, watch progressive Americans, men and women, try to rationalize the passage of Stupak-Pitts. “We don’t like it but it was a ‘compromise’ we had to make for the greater good”. Over and over again. As if you can trade off the rights of one group of people (a mere 52% of the population no less) for the rights and needs of another. But over and over “progressives” are willing to do it while women scream “betrayal” and bear accusations, not only of hysteria, but even of selfishness. This must make conservatives just bliss out.
Then there are the more quiet betrayals. I’m not sure how they end up being quiet but it’s been done by the HarpyCons with the passage of criminal legislation that provide for mandatory minimum sentences for a load of offences, and with the agreement of both the Liberal and New Democratic Parties of Canada no less. Thanks guys. Love women of Canada.
Here’s why the mandatory minimums are a women’s issue. The m.m.s have a disproportionate effect on groups who have experienced historic and current political, social and economic disadvantage. One of those groups would be women, in this case, particularly First Nations and African American women. First Nations women are the most rapidly growing group in the prison system. They are vulnerable to arrest because of police targetting and the poverty, and social and political injustices that have led to increased drug useage. First Nations women suffer disproportionate effects once they’re imprisoned. Often primary caregivers, they’re separated from children for long periods of time and often lose them to foster care forever. Programmes for women in general receive fewer monetary and staffing resources than those for men. Women in general are subject to strip searches and body searches in prison that put them at great risk.
African Canadians, also over-represented in our prison population, are similarly at risk for similar reasons. But women, and particularly African Canadian women, are especially at risk, as pointed out by Professor Elizabeth Sheehy in her recent evidence to the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs:
Women are often caught up in the prosecution of drug offences through their relationship with male partners, often while having minimal actual involvement in drug transactions. Acting as drug mules is a crime committed often out of economic desperation. African Canadian women will be the subgroup of women most dramatically affected by mandatory prison sentences. They are already over-incarcerated at seven times the rate of white women. Some commentators and judges have observed a growing presence of African Canadian women accused as drug couriers. It seems evident that the new mandatory sentences will augment the number of women currently imprisoned, with African Canadian women and their children feeling the worst effects.
Professor Sheehy ended her comments with these words: “I believe Bill C-15 is an affront to our commitment to equality and non-discrimination.”
An affront? Yes, I agree. But it’s an affront that very few people know about and that therefore even fewer are concerned about and that the opposition parties of Canada have chosen to ignore so absolutely that Bill-C15 has been passed through the House and now awaits only Senate approval. There are all sorts of reasons that women’s groups haven’t picked up on this issue in an effective way but I’m not going to blame the women. I’m looking at the people who women, feminists especially, voted for to represent their interests. I’m looking at Michael Ignatieff and Jack Layton, the Liberal and New Democratic Parties of Canada who have seen fit to add their votes to the Conservative votes needed to pass this legislation.
The legislation effects vulnerable groups most but those vulnerable groups are less able to shake the sturdy trunks of the political trees/parties that represent them. The always waiting, not stupid rightwing is there to pounce. The mandatory minimum sentencing issue fits squarely with the conservative “law and order” agenda which would be an absolutely irrational policy if it were actually meant to affect law and order. But it isn’t. Surely the rightwing is not quite so stupid as to believe that longer prison sentences for drug users and dealers does anything at all to prevent crime – there’s just too much empirical evidence showing that it doesn’t. No, once again this is a divisive issue being used to achieve political ends, not the least of which is the building of a prison industrial complex to rival that of the United States of America. It might not “work” but it sure does make a lot of money, create lots of jobs and make constituents in ridings that host prisons pretty happy.
The “liberal” parties supposedly elected at least in part to represent the interests of women and minorities are quite willing to sell out these constituencies out because it just doesn’t do them much harm. So far.
I, for one, want to make it hurt. I want to keep sorting out the links between these rightwing policies and liberal betrayals and putting them out there. I want to defeat the HarpyCons but I also want to make it dead clear that, as a woman, I can’t find a blessed party that truly represents me and my sisters and others for whom I care. I reject a “headlong retreat into fantasy”. I’ll not sit around waiting for this culture to die. That might all sound a little melodramatic but there it is and it suits me just fine.
On this day, December 6th, 2009, when I want to reflect and grieve the women’s lives lost in Montreal in 1989 and all the women of this country who died before or since as a result of intimate partner violence and public violence against women – all those whose names we don’t know – I’ve actually had to time defending my right to define, with my sisters, the meaning of the event and the meaning of those lives and deaths. When women are murdered because they are women, we still have to fight to say so. We are so far away, still, twenty years later, from doing those things that must be done to begin the end of male violence against women that we still struggle for the definition itself.
I wish no person physical harm. But I do want to make that hurt by defeating this government and any other government that thinks it can lead a country while ignoring the needs of half its population.