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Canada’s ‘Feminist’ Aid Program Creates More Questions Than Answers

By 2022, 95 percent of Canada’s international assistance programs will target women and girls. But will this policy actually empower those it seeks to help? York University’s Sylvia Bawa questions how the new “feminist” approach will operate on the ground.

Written by Sylvia Bawa Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Marie-Claude Bibeau, Canada's international development Minister, says women and girls will be at the heart of Canada's international assistance in the years ahead. Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP

Canada has launched what it calls a “feminist international assistance policy,” which will see 95 percent of the country’s bilateral development and aid programs targeted toward women and girls by 2022.

“Canada is adopting a feminist international assistance policy to advance gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls as the most effective way to reduce poverty and build a more inclusive, peaceful and prosperous world,” said Marie-Claude Bibeau, the minister for international development, when she announced the policy this month.

To the untrained observer, this is a bold step to address the waning fortunes of women’s rights under the new world order ushered in with the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, who blocked funding to overseas family planning programs within days of taking office.

But a critical examination of the policy raises important questions.

How does this differ from other aid policies, especially considering that aid is not necessarily a solution to systemic global inequality? Does the policy account for different sociocultural specificities of empowerment across the globe? Does it tackle structural causes of women’s oppression in low-income countries? Or is it a tool strategically employed to position Canada as a leader of human and women’s rights in the world?

Fighting the Causes of Inequality

We know that gender inequality is still a huge problem. Women are violently oppressed and impoverished in many parts of the world. The 2016 Global Gender Gap Report indicates that women lag behind men in almost all aspects of socioeconomic and political life – the economic gap is currently estimated to close in 2186. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization reports that 35 percent of women around the world have experienced some form of violence.

Recently, coordinated global efforts to close the gap, including the Millennium Development Goals, have led to some improvements, but poverty levels continue to rise. How will this program differ from others that have failed to address this trend, especially since there is not a corresponding increase in funding?

Isolating women’s rights issues from the economies of their nations guarantees that the problem will recur in different ways. For example, providing microcredit facilities to women in impoverished countries without tackling the external and structural causes of their nations’ impoverishment is counterproductive.

It also sends a confusing message to focus on women’s issues in conflict-ridden zones, such as South Sudan and Afghanistan, when conflict and instability affects all groups, including the families of these women.

The enjoyment of rights is contingent on a well-functioning society, and if society doesn’t function for all, it won’t bring progress for women and girls.

South Sudan’s crisis affects everyone, not just women and girls. (AFP/Albert Gonzalez Farran)

Fair Trade?

Global structural inequalities have a direct bearing on women’s economic impoverishment and rights violations in low-income countries.

A U.N. human rights committee reported in June that Canada has failed to regulate Canadian businesses involved in extractive industries in low-income countries whose activities result in environmental degradation and human rights violations of people in the local communities.

Wealthier, more powerful nations such as Canada must engage in fair trade and end exploitative economic policies that disadvantage poorer nations. After all, the women whose rights they are promoting with this policy live in countries exploited by unfair trade policies.

To its credit, the Canadian government makes it clear that “a feminist approach is much more than focusing exclusively on women and girls; rather, it is the most effective way to target the root causes of poverty that can affect everyone: inequality and exclusion.”

But this feminist policy, with its target on women and girls, will not solve the root causes of global poverty, inequality and exclusion. That is a much larger problem that manifests locally in gender inequality.

Standing up to Totalitarianism

There is no doubt that at a time when the world is losing faith in the leadership of the U.S., Canada’s new assistance policy comes as an opportunistic and strategically important announcement.

But standing up to regimes that violate women’s rights is also imperative in stemming the tide of violence.

The government’s approval of a 15-year contract worth CAN$15 billion ($11 billion) to make weaponized military vehicles for Saudi Arabia is bewildering in light of its concern for women’s well-being. In particular, there is a direct link between arms traded to Saudi Arabia and escalation of violence in Yemen, with gender-based violence on the rise.

If a powerful country like Canada is unable to stand up to authoritarian regimes and unethical arms deals by powerful corporations, then imagine how much harder it is for grassroots groups to fight for women’s rights in these totalitarian regimes, like the women in Saudi Arabia campaigning to overturn the country’s male guardianship system.

Context Matters

Canada also has much to learn in its domestic approach to women and girls. At home, Canada’s Indigenous women face the very social injustices the policy promises to tackle abroad: violence, inequality and exclusion.

It is understandable that domestic problems (especially historically inherited problems) should not stop Canada from its international developmental engagements and commitments. But an understanding of colonial history at home may provide a better perspective on the structural determinants of women’s inequality abroad.

Context matters in evaluating empowerment. Empowerment and rights language can often diminish locally specific cultural histories. Canada should be wary of the fact that its feminist model of empowerment may not be applicable in non-Western contexts.

Will programs that reject a Western model of empowerment be funded? Will money end up going to well-resourced NGOs as opposed to grassroots groups that are organically mobilized but may not have the language to apply for grants from a Western organization?

The grassroots Gulabi Gang in northern India, for example, counters violence against women with violence, where necessary. Would this group’s modus operandi be considered “consistent with Canada’s values”? The Canadian government must be clear in what it will and will not fund, and why.

For now, the policy is a good conversation starter; how it translates on the ground to support women’s rights remains to be seen.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and may not reflect those of Women & Girls.

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