It’s up to us to raise women’s rights issues in election campaign

By Jackie Hansen, Women’s Rights Campaigner, Amnesty International Canada

I had great hopes for Thursday night’s Globe and Mail’s debate on Canada’s economy. After media attention surrounding the invisibility of women’s rights and gender equality issues in the federal election debate hosted last month by Maclean’s, and the flurry of media attention shortly thereafter around the failure of all federal political party leaders to agree to participate in a nationally broadcast leader’s debate on these issues, my expectations were high. Women’s rights and gender equality issues were on the radar!

How could leaders not address these issues in the debate? And then, five minutes into it, one of the candidates said that having a national childcare strategy is “good for the economy and good for women.” Yes! Use of the word “women” in the context of actually discussing a women’s rights issue! I was so excited I could barely contain myself. So excited, in fact, that I temporarily overlooked the fact that “women” were mentioned, but there wasn’t discussion of why childcare is a women’s rights issue, and how a national childcare strategy could help contribute to the ultimate goal of gender equality.

And then the debate dragged on. My bubble was burst. I was deflated. That was the one and only time that the word “women” was mentioned in the debate. No mention of human rights. And the only mention of Indigenous peoples was a reference by one candidate to how there hadn’t been any discussion of Indigenous peoples and the economy.

Local events address the issues

I felt so let down by the Globe and Mail debate because I had attended two election-related events earlier in the week where women’s rights and gender equality issues figured prominently. On Monday evening I attended the all candidates meeting in my riding and the very first question posed to candidates was one that I had submitted (click here to see the question and others you can ask candidates in your riding):

Families of Indigenous women and girls who have been lost to violence continue to press the federal government for real action to stop the violence. How will you support a comprehensive response to violence against Indigenous women and girls—including an inquiry and action plan? How will you make sure the voices of Indigenous women and girls are at the heart of this process?

This was followed by a question from the audience later in the debate about how each party planned to support women’s empowerment, including in politics. And then, a third question was asked, a follow-up question on violence against Indigenous women and girls. Three questions in one night!

The next evening I attended Feministing Foreign Policy, an event in Ottawa which brought together three women Nobel Peace Prize Laureates—Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi, and Mairead Maguire—along with a star panel of Canadian feminists—Monia Mazigh, Leilani Farha, and Joanna Kerr. They engaged in a two-hour, free-ranging discussion about what a feminist foreign policy for Canada could and should look like. There was talk of women and girls and boys and men and how they are differently impacted by economic, security, and other policy issues. The discussion wasn’t just about women. It was about people, and recognizing that we are not homogenous (and certainly women aren’t a homogenous group!), but that we need to ask difficult questions and consider how different people are impacted in different ways by different policies and how this is something that needs to be at the core of every government policy and program.

National debates gender blind

Last week’s election debate extravaganza reinforced my belief in the importance of engaging all candidates in the upcoming federal election on the issues that matter to us—in my case women’s rights and gender equality issues. When we take the space and ask the questions in public forums, candidates are obliged to respond.

And when ordinary Canadians have the chance to ask questions directly to candidates, the issues that matter most to them surface. The fact that three questions about women’s rights and gender equality issues were asked at my local all candidates meeting demonstrated the importance of these issues to people in my riding.

If these issues are so important at the local level, why have they been so absent in the national debates? During the Maclean’s and Globe and Mail debates, not one question focused on women’s rights and gender equality. And in the responses to questions from leaders, the inclusion of women’s rights and gender equality has been meek. Those hosting debates should be asking questions that reflect the priorities and concerns of all Canadians. And if they fail to do so, it should be second nature for party leaders to provide answers that reflect solid understanding of how people of different genders are differently impacted by issues and may require a diverse array of policy and programming responses. 

Importance of #UpforDebate

Since the questions posed of leaders in the national debates have been so gender blind, and because leaders have largely failed to address women’s rights and gender equality issues in their responses, standalone events focused on women’s rights and gender equality are vitally important to bringing these issues to the fore.

Amnesty International is proud to be one of 175 members of the Canadian Women’s Alliance, the coalition behind the #UpforDebate campaign to help ensure that women’s rights and gender equality issues are thoroughly addressed by all parties in the lead-up to the October 19 federal election.

Tune in tonight

Tonight, September 21, at 7pm EST, video interviews with four out of the five political party leaders will be screened at a sold out event in Toronto, accompanied by commentary and analysis from the media and activists.

The sole focus of this evening’s event is to see how each party plans to concretely address women’s rights and gender equality issues in Canada and around the world.

The event will be livestreamed on the Toronto Star website in English and the Le Devoir website in French. It will also be live Tweeted @UpforDebate2015.

Tune in tonight, and keep asking questions of candidates in your riding. What the national debates have shown us is that it is up to us as voters to put women’s rights and gender equality issues #UpforDebate in this election campaign.