Sunday, March 8, 2015

#MakeItHappen for International Women's Day 2015

Happy International Women's Day!
In a celebration of women in work, the pictures throughout this post are from a stunning set of 39 photos capturing women's work around the world.

Today's theme is #MakeItHappen. Today's post is on what it feels like for a woman navigating her way through some big cities in the West. It seems we've come to a point where, in the West, we think that gender inequality is elsewhere. I'm hoping this post will shed some much needed light on prevailing issues that continue to affect the way women experience their lives, and the negative effects of the inequalities they experience.

After reaching out to friends on social media and thinking over the conversations I've had, here is an amalgamation of thoughts below.

A common complaint was the second shift - that after a full day at the office, women then come home to a second workplace: the home, where cleaning, cooking, child care and often the care of the elder, the sick and husbands all await. Although younger mothers stated that they had helpful partners, they still felt that the brunt fell to them. That the consequence is women feeling anxious (replete with elevated heart rates and levels of stress) when thinking of the home, should come as no surprise.

Some female friends reported that in the workplace, their ideas were often overlooked by male colleagues. One friend said that when she explains a product, she is often questioned at length, but when a male colleague explains the same product in the same way, his version is accepted without question. This, no doubt, contributes to the ever-present confidence gap and the impostor syndrome that women feel in the workplace, accounting for a lack of women asserting themselves for positions for which they are fully qualified.

The Workplace (capitalized) remains a difficult place for women. While overt discrimination is generally not as prevalent (unless we all displayed our salaries or spoke of how we experience children and work), women still face the gendered double standard (also called the second-generation gender bias). In an environment that rewards workers who tout their accomplishments and self-promote, women get punished for similar behaviour, and for speaking out, speaking up or asserting themselves in traditionally male ways. This quote from a sex discrimination lawsuit in Silicone Valley perfectly highlights what women are told to do:

“Speak up - but don’t talk too much. Light up the room - but don’t overshadow others. Be confident and critical - but not cocky or negative.”

I'm as confused as you are as to what that means.

Calling out catcalling trended successfully on social media this year, but that doesn't mean it has stopped: one woman described experiences of catcalling so negative that she found alternate routes to the gym and to work. "I may not be harassed with the physical violence of Tahrir Square protestors, but when I fear going outside because of being called a bitch or a slut if I don't respond to someone's whistles, it feels pretty violent to me."

Facing constant micro-aggressions in the workplace was prevalent for a black friend who spoke about having to represent the entire black culture, and be the token black woman playing up stereotypes to placate white colleagues. Intersectionality is a key issue in feminism today, and affects a wide range of women in different ways: from trans-women to disabled women, women of lower socio-economic class to women from racialized backgrounds. The intersection exacerbates the discrimination felt under each lens.

Women continued to mention the constant unwanted touching that plague their every day: from hands on backs and shoulders at work to grabs and gropes on the street and in restaurants or on public transport, women's bodies seem to still be the property of men. On that note, what was John Travolta doing at the Oscars (and hello Joe Biden as politic's creepy uncle) ?! To highlight this pervasive issue, Al-Jazeera presents an amazing series of photos of male 'entitlement' to women's bodies.

On that note, did you know that 1 in 3 women report being sexually harassed in the workplace? This includes sexual comments and unwanted touching to lewd emails and texts. If catcalling makes public spaces into soft war zones, how come we aren't offering more protections for women in the workplace, who, when confronted with sexual harassment are more likely to get fired for reporting it then protected by workplace policies?

"When do I have a kid?" One prominent female partner at a Bay-street law firm let me know that 30 years into her career, she was being asked the same question by young associates as she had asked her seniors 30 years previous. "Nothing has changed," she continued, "family-friendly workplace policies are a joke, as is paternity leave. Three top lawyers sat down a male colleague to tell him not to take paternity leave or he might lose his job." Clearly we're doing something wrong if companies still haven't figured out how to accommodate, encourage and promote their female employees. Women take a severe economic hit when they have children (even upon their return to the same position!), continue to be unremunerated for the work of being a mother, and are hired and paid even less on the wage gap scale than women without children.

A comprehensive analysis on women in the Canadian workforce can be found here. As you may have expected, equality is far from achieved.

Did you know? Women like sex, want to have sex, and don't want to be labeled negatively for it. Slut-shaming has got to go. For all the cases where women have been accused of 'bringing this on themselves,' its time to retire the concept of whore, slut and that ridiculous virgin/whore dichotomy.

Finally, it seemed that through all the responses and conversations I've had, its the general daily indignities* that women face, simply for being a woman, that wear us down. The everyday sexist comments, the harassing stares, the constant interruptions, the mansplaining, the uncomfortable gendered spaces, the sexual pressures and ambiguities (still!) of consent, the silencing of voices, the being told what to do, the expectations and the stereotypes.

In conclusion, yes, gender inequalities are alive and well, even in Western, developed, big industrial cities. And yes, although they are, women and men can work together to prevent the toxicity that their existence brings.

Here's to #MakingThatHappen.

*I purposefully did not speak to sexual and gender-based violence as I think that deserves a piece in and of itself and to demonstrate that even without violence as we understand it in a physical sense, structural violence still persists. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Patricia Arquette and Intersectionality: A Lesson for White Feminists (from one who is still learning)

Patricia Arquette made an important statement during Sunday night's Oscar broadcast. While accepting her golden man, she advocated for wage equality, and from her vantage point, on the Oscar stage, that's both an admirable and an important thing to communicate (lest we forget we live in 2015 year where pesky wage inequalities persists).

There have been statements that Ms. Arquette is both too wealthy or 'just an actress', and so should not raise her voice for this cause. Those comments are anti-feminist, infantilizing, and drenched in harmful classist and gendered stereotypes.

It is, however, unfortunate (if not downright abysmal) that Ms. Arquette did not choose to delve even just the slightest bit more deeply into her statement before going on stage, to avoid this embarrassing statement which she expanded upon in her backstage interview: "It's time for all the women in America, and all the men that love women, and all the gay people, and all the people of color that we've all fought for to fight for us now."

Intersectionality. I'm struggling with understanding the full-depth of it myself, and as cross-cutting themes of race, disability, sexual orientation, class and the rural v urban framework continue to evolve and be explored, it seems almost impossible to encompass all experiences within an articulated statement for a social cause. And yet, Patricia Arquette has continued the structural erasure that white feminists have done for so long before her, and thus presents us with a learning opportunity (even though sometimes, we are tired of teaching).

When Ms. Arquette speaks of 'us', she speaks of white women, and, more precisely, white women like her (affluent, able, educated and cis-gendered). She reaffirms this by positioning the existence of other groups of people: 'gay people', 'people of color' and 'men who love us', as distinct from the overarching 'us', demonstrating a quite shocking lack of understanding of the intersections between all these groups (and more).

Wage inequality does exist. But it exists in quite sharp variations when race cross-cuts with gender. A quick look at the chart below shows that although the latest American Census numbers indicate a .1c increase (from 77c to 78c!) for working women's pay compared to the dollar equivalent for men, a breakdown by racialized backgrounds shows an altogether more dire reality:

If that weren't enough, since 2011, the wage gap for black women has worsened from 69c to 64c, and widened slightly for American Indian and Native Alaskan, Hawaiian and Pacific Islander women. 

While ignoring the intersectionality present between all groups she mentioned, Ms. Arquette also mistakenly stated that these groups should 'fight for us' - meaning that while gay rights have known a wide acceptance both socially and at the Supreme Court level, and while civil rights were fought for by white women and obtained before women's voting rights were legislated, our demand for wage equality has gone unsupported. But it sounded an awful lot like Ms. Arquette was stating that LGBT groups and people of color have won equality and are resting on lofty laurels, which, I'm sure, is a shock to all. 

Like any issue, there are nuances and truths and nuances to the truths. While gay rights have indeed known wide-spread support at the US Supreme Court level, and are expected to gain even more very soon, trans people still remain widely discriminated against, can still be fired in certain states, alongside their gay colleagues, and continue to fight for recognition and a voice that seems barely forthcoming. And when you were reading that sentence, if you imagined white men in that group, let me point to black transgender women and the rates of their murders in the US this year, and make you pause for a moment on the ways race can intersect within this group and add more weight to an already heavy experience. And while yes, some white suffragettes joined the abolitionist movement, others did not, and some broke away to continue their relentless pursuit for equality... for white women first

Indeed, Ms. Arquette, it is rather white women to turn away from the mirror and understand that we are in the greatest position of power within the feminist arena, to fight for others and, most importantly, to take a back seat, listen and learn about the experiences and needs and daily struggles and ways forward for other women who, due to the weight of a variety of cross-cutting themes, do not benefit from 78c on the dollar (as ridiculous as even that number is). Who do not have a stage such as the Oscars to speak from. Who's voices would not be respected or listened to or even allowed to speak at all.  Who cannot have the unbridled privilege of wandering through life blissfully unaware of the advantage of being white, cis-gender and heterosexual, successful and able-bodied.

As the Washington Post points out, Ms. Arquette would not have had to look very far to find examples of such intersections. In her audience are black actors and actors of color struggling for equal pay, equal recognition and equal opportunity for roles in Hollywood. The wage gap within this community, contrary to many beliefs, is very realwhere both actors and employees at entertainment companies are confronted with stark disparities in gendered pay. Ms. Arquette could turn to Sony, where out of 6000 employees, 17 are making more than $1million/year and only one of these is a woman. More infuriating is that of the two co-presidents of Columbia Production company who have the exact same job, he is paid over a million more than she is. Cross cutting racialized backgrounds into this analysis would reveal another layer of depressing realities in that women of color are rarely represented in the upper echelons of any companies, with both structural racisms and microagressions playing a large part in their absence.

Oh, what a good hack can reveal. 

Intersectionality and inclusion are the necessary present and future for the feminist movement. I have written about this numerous times, and I cannot stress how understanding and empathy will bind us together. I am certain that Ms. Arquette meant well. And sometimes it seems difficult to ensure that our words are encompassing the many lived experiences present within our communities and nations. But I think it is perhaps not that hard. It is not that overwhelming. It does takes an open mind, a willingness to learn and to educate oneself, and to be aware that the process of acknowledging our privilege can be uncomfortable, that we may be unaware of it, or that it might not feel real to us at all, as we deal with our own daily struggles. And yet, there it is.

To Ms. Arquette, I still think you are fantastic. You are clearly committed to many social causes and have done amazing activist work throughout your career. You are vocal and unafraid. And like us all, you stumble through complex issues. Maybe next time, air them out for feedback before you place a microphone to your thoughts. 

You may have done more than your publicist can now handle, but maybe we should thank you for providing such a brash calls to arms that now has the unfortunate label of being just another example of the White Feminist privilege. What a beautiful learning opportunity - so let's make sure we do just that. 


Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Feminism in 2014: More than Beyoncé and Malala, Ways Forward

This year saw the advent of a new kind of feminism on a truly global scale. Strong women were no longer afraid and weaker women were empowered. It was the year of sexual consent accountability, where enthusiastic consent was prioritized over force or disregard. It was the year where men were held accountable for the soft war zones that cities have become for women: where street harassment was called-out, and 'man-spreading' became illegal. Where women from around the world rose up for the education of young girls, led by a powerful young Pakistani girl who was awarded the Nobel Peace prize for her efforts. Universities across the US and Canada were forced to acknowledge the rampant sexual violence prevailing on their campuses, and their befuddled and paltry handling of such a widespread crisis was exposed. It was the year where India faced its own sexual violence and sexism, and was held accountable. From marriage equality to both loving and questioning Sheryl Sandberg, prominent celebrities taken to court over sexual abuse allegations, photo hacking 'sex scandals' relabelled as the sexual abuse they are, the feminist movie Frozen breaking records at the box office, #YesAllWomen in response to the very real threat of every day violence against women, Lupito Nyong'o and Viola Davis brilliantly shaming white journalism, and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaking to feminism as only she can - without a doubt, women's voices, through trial and struggle, were being heard, and their participation was more than a check-marked box; women found a seat at the table.

But that seat is tenuous, at best, and the risk comes not the seemingly obvious, but rather, from within. 2014 was also the year when feminism saw gaping racial wounds re-opened, as social media divided feminists along historically privileged and racialized lines.  In a sad state of affairs, a flurry of female pop stars cried out that they weren't feminists at all, with a somewhat lacklustre opposition pointing to the inherent hypocrisy in those words. The integration of men into women's rights was globally celebrated - with the predictably unimaginative backlash that followed.

Despite how archaic these battles are (popular feminism has a long history of catering to white middle and upper class women, has consistently been undermined by the very women it seeks to empower and is tiredly stereotyped for promoting misandry), they remain real and deserve some measure of examination.

Race and class are playing a far greater role in today's social economics than ever before. Inequality is now an evidence, where stagnant incomes and the growing cost of living has erased the US's middle class and given rise to a startling income gap in Canada, with The International Monetary Fund declaring income inequality to be highly correlated with poor economic growth. That capitalism has hit a wall on which only the smallest percentage of the world's population have been able to climb is no longer a secret, but one that has spawned rioting throughout the globe, movements that governments could not ignore. The current protests in the US are no different: from race to immigration to raising the minimum wage, people are tired of being left out, tired of being unemployed or underemployed and disappointed that the so-called recovery has not worked for them.

Within these groups, the experiences of poverty and race is defiantly gendered. That women of lower socio-economic class and from racialized backgrounds contend with higher rates of discrimination and disenfranchisement in all areas (health insurance, school punishments, job prospects, career advancement, networking, food security - to name but a few) and lower prospects for a liveable income, safety within the household, access to resources for themselves and their children and equality in the burden of care and household tasks, should no longer come as a surprise. That their voices and experiences remain largely unheard within mainstream media only exacerbates their invisibility and continues to undermine solutions. Social media, in which feminism in 2014 garnered a huge platform, must be proactive in bringing forth these experiences, not as 'other' to the 'norm', but as part of a mainstream dialogue. Listening, highlighting and empowering voices is the first step in understanding different realities, and inevitably leads to a more diverse consortium of issues and ideas.

Female fans of pop stars both cringed and celebrated this year. While Beyoncé stood proudly in front of a giant glowing Feminist backdrop at an awards show (co-opting? Read her essay "Gender Equality is a Myth!" as part of the Shriver Report), a slew of generally ignorant pop stars declared that feminism wasn't for them, prompting a general outpour of young women taking to Twitter, insisting "they liked men, so they weren't feminists." Everyone else sighed. That youth is wasted on the young is a widely understood snippet, except by the young. And so, to list the sacrifices, leaps and strides that women "before your time did in order for you to even be able to make that claim," to me, seem a waste of time. Instead, I understand that soon, these young women will come to see the hypocrisy through experience. What we do need is to instruct our children as early as possible in gender equality: from being good role models as parents to ensuring the toys and books that children use don't reinforce traditional and harmful gender roles. We must hold our media responsible for the sexualization of young girls and the depicted machoism of young boys, turning instead to the understanding that bodies and minds do not mature at the same time, and that gender is fluid; not fixed boxes. Little boys and girls that live in households and grow in societies that promote gender equality and the empowerment of both men and women is a better band-aid for risible statements than elaborate eye-rolling.

Women-friendly and women-only spaces are necessary. While I would like to believe that we could live in a society where the norm would not skew male, I don't believe that will be happening soon. Given this reality, among others, there exists situations that remain gendered, violent and traumatic. Therefore, women-friendly and women-only spaces matter and are necessary. However. If feminism seeks to (rightly) expand women's rights, the inclusion of men is intrinsic to its success. Gender equality and the promotion of women's rights and issues is undoable without men, both as everyday promoters and supporters and at the helm alongside their female partners. Women's issues are men's issue too, and it would be ignorant and disastrous of us not to work together. HeForShe is only one example of a global project to include men in the fight against gender inequality, and its a good one. White Ribbon is another. Why wouldn't you join?

For all of this, there is a bitter solution. Gender analysis is a process that seeks to question the 'why' of realities, uncovering their root causes. I'd suggest that its time to do the same with our newest wave of feminism. Although why may rub people the wrong way, as only very rarely do want to examine the reasons behind our actions, the roots of our feelings, but we must, if we'd like a sustainable solution. If we are to mend the cracks so vehemently on display in this past year of feminism, we must ask why they are there.

Why do black women feel unheard in mainstream feminism media? Why do young women feel feminism isn't for them? Why is there a backlash against men in feminism? Why do white women feel uncomfortable with the voices of racialized women? Why do pop stars feel pressured to distance themselves from the word feminism? Why is there such mistrust between the sexes?

'Why' is such a powerful tool, but it is based on a principle of restorative justice: if we can work backwards from our ideal solution, we open ourselves to possibilities of a way forward we may never have imagined.

Clara Vaz

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Jian Ghomeshi, Consent and Things We've Known For A Very Long Time

I have written before on how sexual violence is a normalized part of many (if not, to some degree, all) women's lives. I have written before on the pervasive nature of violence against women and it's daily expressions: the little indignities that pierce like sharp pins - from friends to strangers, co-workers to the media, advertisements and seemingly sweet passerby's, who 'just want to chat.'

In light of everything Jian Ghomeshi-related, it's difficult not to pipe up and pile on. But I think feminists worldwide are rolling their eyes, tired at the so-called revelations. Things we've known for far too long. Of course we live in a culture where skewed power relations and visions of dominant male identities allow men to use abuse in their intimate relationships. Intimate partner violence is the main scourge of abuse against women worldwide - and yes, we've been raising our voices for a while now. Of course sexual harassment in the workplace is a real and daily experience, and no, it's not a so-called 'benefit' of being a woman. That Parliament Hill is undergoing it's own scandal comes as little surprise.

Of course women who have experienced sexual violence don't come forward to report the acts of violence committed against them, because of a number of reasons, all of which are valid - and a major part of it is that access to justice is not a guarantee, and the experience can be disappointing and more emotionally scarring than the incident itself. Of course there is shame, there is shock, and there are women who would rather stay anonymous then ever have their names tied to a crime that places far too heavy a burden on the victim's shoulders. It's not easy being known as the woman who was raped. Or the woman who stayed in an abusive relationship for years. Or the woman who kept dating someone who hit her.

And there it is. The undercurrent through some of this recent news, remains, as always, the same tired victim-blaming. She was power-hungry, she was attracted to the fame, she went back out with him, she never said no, she made him think it was okay...

Welcome to a woman's life. Would you like to join me on this tightrope?

So, no, this Jian Ghomeshi-inspired frenzy is not a new movement. It's difficult not to accept everyone into the conversation, because we've been wanting it to be had for so long. But every time there is another gruesome act committed against women, we hope that perhaps this will be the moment. I guess we stopped hoping a long time ago, because now, I think we're a little tired. Of course, we will stand. Of course, we will make our voices heard. And of course, I want more than anything for young boys and men to be a part of the cause, because I believe only by helping each other and working together can we get anywhere closer to equality - but... I'm a little tired.

Moving on.

Consent is an interesting concept. In business deals, a handshake can be the bare minimum to tie two parties to a commitment to act, or not, in a certain way in future dealings. Fortunately, not so when it comes to our persons, our bodies, and our sexual selves. In R. v. J.A. [2011] the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that consent must be enabled on an ongoing basis throughout any sexual activity. I.e. sexual intercourse with a person while they are unconscious no matter what they may have agreed to, is not consensual. Because consent is ongoing. Consent is informed. And for those two measures to be fulfilled, the person must be, at the very least, able to give consent. As the Supreme Court stated, there must be an active mind.

The Supreme Court has also stated, in R. v. Jobiden [1991] that someone cannot consent to violence done against them. This runs counter to the BDSM community, where violence can be part of a wide array of sexual and emotional that are used in such interactions. A very detailed and insightful article, however, points (as did the Supreme Court) to the ways in which consent is also tiered: just because someone said 'yes' to a sexual activity a few minutes ago, does not mean that a few minutes later, they feel the same way. This can be demonstrated through body language, 'safe-words,' (no works too), and also puts the onus on all parties to be aware of these forms of communication.

"She didn't say no" is not, at the very basic level, the kind of sex I want to have, nor should anyone be submitted to. However, consent in all its necessary forms: informed, ongoing, tiered also needs another one: affirmative. A sexual act is composed of intimate actions, potentially enjoyable, potentially harmful, being done to the mind and to the body. The responsibility lies in both partners to ensure that these acts are being well-received. Luckily, the Supreme Court has upheld this as well: In R. v. Ewanchuk [1999] the Court stated there is no implied consent in the Criminal Code of Canada. "She didn't say no" is not a defence.

Unfortunately we live in a patriarchal society where power is male. The imbalance in power relations does not magically appear when men and women are adults, in the workplace, sitting as CEO and hitting glass ceilings, respectively. It is bred from an early age where young girls learn very quickly that their bodies and looks must be manipulated and contorted to suit the male gaze. The translation of this realization, and all the shameful social inequalities of being a woman, into the bedroom are incomprehensibly heavy. Girls and women worry more about their hair, their bodies, their faces and if they are pleasing the man than they do thinking about their own sexual pleasure or if the partnership feels good for them both.

Just as there are a million reasons why women don't report the sexual violence against them, there are a million reasons why women don't actively say no during a sexual act. There is fear of violence - to themselves, to children. There is knowledge that saying no before has amounted to nothing. There is inability to express sentiments to a partner who has created such a stifling environment that dissent is impossible. There are power imbalances at play. There is fear of their partner leaving them, not loving them, cheating on them. There is the simple reason of not wanting to have to say no, of wanting your partner to see, as plain as day, that you do not want to be treated as such. And that they shouldn't believe they can do whatever they want in the bedroom. There are repercussions.

Communication is difficult in all arenas. We struggle with it daily. In sex, we wish communication weren't necessary, we hope that things will click and be perfect. But we can't remove the shames and burdens from our public lives and hope these will dissipate in our private bedrooms. We have wants, needs and desires, just as we have dislikes and categorical off-limits, and never happenings. We have a right to it all, if we're alone, on a desert island. But when another person is involved, consent - informed, ongoing, tired and affirmative consent dives deep into the picture. Better learn to swim.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

New Brunswick Denies Women's Rights as Morgentaler Clinic Prepares to Close

Women’s reproductive control is still a highly contentious issue in many parts of the world, and as we have seen through recent Supreme Court decisions in the United States, the divisive issue is not solely one for developing nations. 

As women are painted as second-class citizens, subject to prejudice and sexual harassment, unable to access consistent and affordable birth control and with their bodies seen as familial or spousal property, the consequences are often that unplanned pregnancies are high and unsafe abortions prevail. India is a prime example: although the country allows for abortion on broad grounds, it still accounts for exorbitantly high numbers of deaths and complications due to unsafe procedures, with accounts of one woman dying every two hours as a result. 

That couldn't possibly happen in Canada. Unless you've been reading the news lately and discovered that when it comes to the Maritimes region, women are relegated to second-class when it comes to their reproductive rights and access to health services.

Although abortion in Canada has been legal since the Supreme Court decision in R v. Morgentaler in 1988, New Brunswick, with a population of just under 800 000 (2011), has refused to abide by provisions in the Canada Health Act of 1985, stating that medically necessary services provided by a physician must be provincially funded. The province has enacted Regulation 84-20, Schedule 2(a.1) into its Medical Service Payment Act, which reads as follows:

“unless the abortion is performed by a specialist in the field of obstetrics and gynaecology in a hospital facility approved by the jurisdiction in which the hospital facility is located and two medical practitioners certify in writing that the abortion was medically required”.

The Morgentaler clinic, run previously by the eponymous doctor until his death last year, provided abortions free of charge for women who could not afford them for the past 20 to 40 years, depending on the clinic's location. The office in Fredericton, New Brunswick has been offering women's health care for twenty years - this has included counselling, consulting on STI's and abortions - not only to women in the region but also to those from Prince Edward Island, where abortion services are also notoriously difficult to come by.  Having provided services to over 100 000 women, it is the only private clinic in New Brunswick and the only one east of Montreal. Due to the restrictive nature of the Medical Services Act and the New Brunswick's Department of Health refusing to subsidize women's care, the clinic has been acting on the late Dr. Morgentaler's edict, that no woman needing an abortion should be turned away, and has been providing funding through its own means. In the past ten years, the clinic has contributed over $105 000 to subsidize abortions for women unable to pay the $700-$900 financial burden. 

New Brunswick's Regulation 84-20 inarguably violates women's constitutional rights as cemented in R v. Morgentaler in 1988, when the Supreme Court unanimously decided that to require a woman to seek approval from an abortion committee was a direct violation of the security of her person and created too deep of an interference to her bodily integrity. The same remains true for Regulation 84-20, which when requiring the approval of two doctors to confirm the 'medical necessity' of an abortion, places serious impediments on a woman's free right to choose, her reproductive rights and seriously hinders her bodily integrity. Moreover it creates an increased unnecessary burden to low-income women and women who live in geographically sparse areas, where access to both consistent and quality reproductive services is scarce. 

In a province where more than 60 000 people are without a family physician, approval from two doctors is an impediment to access. In a province where only two hospitals perform abortions, if women travel out of province for abortive services, none of those expenses are refunded as the province does not provide reciprocal reimbursements for abortions. A different take on this would be to imagine an Ontario student at the University of New Brunswick who needed an abortion: she would have to pay $1800 at one of the two hospitals in the province - or go to the Morgentaler clinic. The last option is soon to be off the table.

This is further burden for poor women - women who can't afford to travel out of province, can't afford to take time away from their jobs or their families, don't have the means to travel to different hospitals to secure different signatures - while first finding a doctor who is pro-choice and willing to give his/her signature, only to be placed on a waiting list for the only two gynaecologists who currently perform abortions in the province. When women can't access the reproductive services they need, the number of women undergoing unsafe procedures or taking unsafe medications rises. Indeed, banning or restricting abortions has no affect on the number of women who will attempt it - and in areas across the world where abortion is illegal, unsafe abortions rates surge even higher.

Often what sets apart the rich from the poor is access. In India, like in Canada, federal laws have given broad grounds for a woman to have the complete control over her body and her reproductive rights. Just like in India, however, access remains hindered. Access, in the case of New Brunswick, is both political and geographical - and the latter is greatly influenced by economic status. The province is riddled with a gendered type of poverty: in 2011, 14.5% of women and 10.7% of men ages 18-64 were living in poverty - highest levels were among single mothers and their children: 28.9% of which are poor. Women without partners are the worst off, having an almost five times more likely to be poor factor than their male counterparts. While male poverty is linked to unemployment and labor, female poverty is more complex, involving a persistent wage gap (women earned 88.6% of what men did in 2013 in comparable jobs and hours), a large burden of unpaid work including childcare, eldercare, housework (meals, cleaning) then compounded by lack of affordable childcare and family-friendly workplace policies. Women can also be predominantly found within 'female job' clusters that are even further affected by pay inequity, and by consequence, 6.5% of women compared to 4.4% of men hold two jobs or more.

Creating laws that uphold women's rights to control their bodies and reproduction is only the first step. The second is ensuring access, not further measures of restriction, to those services that comply with the law. That New Brunswick has chosen to so blatantly disregard these legally protected rights and enact regulations that further bar access to basic services has severe consequences to a population that is already riddled with the feminization of poverty, and, it would seem, would only worsen the economic disparities that women currently face. 

New Brunswick must repeal Regulation 84-20 and abide by the Canada Health Act. Abortion services and reproductive rights will be front and centre at the upcoming elections in September, and hopefully women's rights will be updated to the rest of the Canadian provinces in 2014. 

There is a FundRazr campaign currently ongoing where I urge you to donate to keep the Morgentaler clinic open. With a goal of $100 000, this money will last only a short time, so any extra donations will help immensely. 

You can also read more at Reproductive Justice NB, where the very brilliant Kathleen Pye is heading a campaign to save the Morgentaler clinic. 

Its the very least we can do for women in Canada, where rights, access and health should be equal among us all. 

Clara Vaz

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Hobby Lobby and Religious Fervour: Birth Control is Now Your Boss's Business

I was not going to comment on the recent US Supreme Court's deeply disappointing decision in the Hobby Lobby case. But then I read Penelope's piece, and rethought - because she argues what I've been thinking: People who don't actually experience what you're experiencing should refrain from giving set-in-stone decrees on how to manage your experience. So, in short,  desist with the judgement or commandments.

Certainly no legal rulings with far-reaching negative effects.

Which brings me to the US Supreme Court Hobby Lobby decision. Is it justly conceivable that five male Justices weighed the balance accepting corporate entities to deny coverage of all forms of birth control - a ruling that will affect women?

The Hobby Lobby case is the first time that a Court has allowed a corporate entity to deny employees a federal benefit, entitled to by law, (birth control - in all its forms) because of its owner's religious beliefs, embodying corporations with personhood. The ruling is steeped in a gendered outcome: negatively affecting mainly women (with men being a secondary casualty, and economic progression and access a viable third) and, as usual, will most severely affect poor and minority women. Women, who, it is widely argued, need the easiest access to consistent birth control if they are to enjoy the very basics of our first world society: access to the workplace and reproductive control. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote exactly this, powerful dissenting to a ruling she viewed as denying women their reproductive freedom and allowing commercial enterprises to "opt out of laws (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs." A capitalist marketplace consisting of workplaces where people exchange time and work for pay has now become a place where cultural wars are fought: where the United States is allowing religious faith to supersede, if not at the very least, meddle in an employee's benefits. Since work (re: economic survival) and health benefits are intrinsically linked, placing religious beliefs as a star player in the mix sets a dangerous precedent.

The decision is further disappointing in that the group Hobby Lobby objected to birth control based on views that certain substances in birth control induce abortion - a belief that has been disproved, time and again, in that birth control acts on preventing conception before it takes place, not aborting it afterwards. Even emergency birth control does not abort fetuses but rather, delays ovulation. In Canada, pharmacists clearly indicate that Plan B won't work if successful implantation of a fertilized egg has already occurred. The Supreme Court has now given worrisome legal weight to these unsubstantiated claims, weighing in on a medical issue in terms heavily steeped in moral and religious beliefs, denying factual evidence to the contrary. That Hobby Lobby invests more than 73 million dollars in the very same companies that make the reproductive products they are objecting to on religious grounds seems sacrilegious, if not farcical, at best.

A compilation of many recent research studies on the availability of birth control is available here by the NYTimes, demonstrating the already dangerous scarcity of birth control, the inaccurate information provided to women by the very people they entrust their health to, the exorbitant costs of both contraception and emergency birth control and the high percentage of pharmacists and doctors who already sway their patients differently based on their own religious beliefs. The misinformation and deception is disheartening.

A careful reading of both the Religious Freedoms Restoration Act of 1993 and the Affordable Care Act of 2010 does not bring to light persuasive evidence either that corporate entities cannot worship freely or advocate against birth control, nor that women must use the insurance to cover their reproductive rights. Indeed, corporations pay into general health insurance and this provides coverage for a breadth of medical services. What a woman does or does not choose is between herself and her physician - not her bosses's beliefs and her physician. The Justice's interpretation of 'substantial burden' (as in the government cannot substantially burden a person's free exercise of religion) seems to disregard the affecting clause: unless the burden is necessary for a 'compelling government interest' and in achieving it by the 'least restrictive means.' This disregard fails also to note that religious faiths must be accommodating so as not to burden others as well. Such a narrow interpretation and the Court's finding that the Federal Care Act tells corporations that 'their beliefs are flawed' is beyond far-reaching. To this, it would be remiss of me to not let Justice Ginsburg's words speak with precision and clarity:

“The Court levels a criticism that is as wrongheaded as can be. In no way does the dissent ‘tell the plaintiffs that their beliefs are flawed,” she wrote. “Right or wrong in this domain is a judgment no Member of this Court, or any civil court, is authorized or equipped to make. What the Court must decide is not ‘the plausibility of a religious claim…’ but whether accommodating that claim risks depriving others of rights accorded them by the laws of the United States.”

Read more:

Finally, the Hobby Lobby decision lays the very unsettling groundwork for other corporate entities to reduce or hinder benefits based on religious beliefs (an exemption previously only given to religious not for profit entities, ie, churches), in a form of religious and gender-based discrimination with widespread consequences. Not only does the ruling disregard both the fundamental health needs and the 'sincerely held beliefs' of the employees, it also presumes that women's interests or public health are not compelling interests.

The government already 'forces' corporations to abide by many substantially burdenful federal laws to prevent them from acting in manners harmful to their employees and to abide by federal regulations that serve a greater public good. This was precisely the reasoning for the Federal Care Act covering birth control, as it was deemed to be of compelling interest to public health, social stability and optimal reproductive choices as well as to a woman's well-being. Justice Alito, writing for the majority, unfortunately doesn't agree, as both gender equality and public health are, in his view, too broad of terms to be 'compelling interests.' While gender equality might not be something that everyone agrees is desirable, the public health benefits of birth control are undeniable - not to mention the vast economic benefits. The government has already allowed corporations to 'opt out' from health insurance (meaning they wouldn't have to cover birth control at all) - reducing Hobby Lobby's argument to faith-based claims on right and wrong, something that, as Justice Ginsburg states, is not a matter that the Court can or should decide.

For that matter, can we touch briefly on the supposed religious grounds that Hobby Lobby claims influence their right not to cover birth control? In a way, this case can be boiled down to a far more base but prevailing concern among religious men (and some women): Should women be allowed to freely have sex before marriage for reasons other than procreation? And if they do, does that mean they are enjoying sex? Does that mean they are not as chaste as we want our women to be? Who decides a woman's supposed purity? Should women have sex the way men can? If we allow for women's reproductive rights to stand, will we be encouraging promiscuity?

Shouldn't women have a say in their own lives?

This brings me back to my initial point. The Supreme Court's five right-leaning male justices have ruled on a decision that will immediately affect 14 000 female employees of the Hobby Lobby corporation. Should we not have demanded that this ruling be supported by at least one of the female justices of the Court? When the US House holds a committee session on birth control, should we not have demanded that at least one member of the panel be a woman? When the 2014 Global Summit on Women was recently held in Paris, shouldn't we have gawked at not a single woman being up on stage?

The Hobby Lobby case will severely impact the lives of women and men  and paves the way for the hundreds more cases awaiting the same rulings on religion v. birth control. It's startling and indicative of changing times when a government and its Supreme Court so greatly disagree, and those responsible for the decision-making on both sides deserve to have both their records and motives dissected for better understanding. That five right-leaning male Justices decided this case does not only a disservice to the women the case will affect, but also for equality and to the trust and faith of the people in the Court itself.

A lot of decisions affecting women aren't made by women, and that is a very dangerous trend to keep upholding.

Clara Vaz

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Working Women: The Gendered Nature of Time Poverty

Poverty, as we are discovering, is far more complex than simply being about financial scarcity. It is a multi-dimensional structure with cross-cutting issues that affect every facet of a person's life: from their employment benefits and likelihood of upward mobility to their health and trust in doctors, from their parenting skills to their children's language skills, from their ability to process information to their ability to make good decisions. Poverty is the overall blanket that smothers a person's life in a self-perpetuating and compounding way.

Development workers have long known of 'time poverty,' a concept only now being understood in a Western poverty context. Poor people live on borrowed time that they will never, if rarely, be able to make up: the more problems happening in the moment, the less I can concentrate on the future, and the more pressing the issues (bills, food, health), the more time and concentration I give to them, resulting in bad long terms decisions in order to fulfill the immediate need. This is the 'bandwidth' part of time poverty. The second, physical, is measured in hours: poverty compounds activity: not only is my mind taken up with pressing issues of survival, but my body is taken up with working, overworking and the inability to come in some way to relieve the pressures of never being able to stop working. Relaxation, vacations, time off, these are luxuries of the rich - time that is too costly to waste for the poor.

Research has shown that living in poverty only reinforces the vicious mind/body cycle: even when shown opportunities for betterment, poor people will often not know they can take advantage of those opportunities, or not be able to see them because they are so habituated to living under the pressures of scarcity. Poverty drastically impairs people's ability to spot opportunity or take advantage of the ones presented to them.* And so the poor borrow not only money from banks at high rates, from friends and family at rates of loss of friendship and trust, but also time at rates that can never be repaid. Time from tomorrow, time from next week, time that is such a costly commodity with a sky high tax: poor people have less attention spans, less energy, less apt cognitive functioning, all due to the borrowed time. The poor can't take time off being poor to make up for the stress in their current moment.

Time poverty in the physical sense is also be seen and measured: the rich afford time savers: nannies, drivers, helpers, gardeners, cleaners, assistants. This begins to point to the extreme gendered nature of time poverty: much of the help that the rich can afford relates to traditional female roles and activities around the family and home. The current research has concentrated on developing nation women who often not only take care of the cooking, cleaning, child, sick and elderly care, but also the gardening, much of the field work, grocery and water gathering, while also tending to their husbands and fulfilling cultural duties of sexual acts when the man demands it, carrying unplanned pregnancies and taking part in any matriarchal duties in the community.

Just as in the Western worlds, however, this burden and duty of care is barely recognized by states (save for some progressive European nations) and is certainly not economically rewarded. Equally as important, the perception of this work is always less than the perception of waged work - our economic value system rewards paid work in the public sphere far more than work in the private domain. Perception matters: where a woman's work and time is considered of lesser value, her worth as a person diminishes as well, as does the value of her girl children who will grow into the same moulds as their mothers.

It would be unreasonable to suggest that the gendered nature of time poverty does not affect so-called developed nations. Indeed, the advent of women in the workplace has not been coupled with a diminution of work at home or a shared burden of household and family care by their partners and women are finding themselves fulfilling more roles now than in the past. Is it any wonder than women view their homes as sources of high stress while men view them as spaces of relaxation? Although there is a physical separation between their workplace and their home, women often finish a day's work to return to a home where they must now cook, clean and take care of children and tend to their partners, while men return home to relax and enjoy their evening. This despite research that suggests men who help around the house also have more sex with their partners, are less likely to divorce, and report higher overall happiness within their partnerships.

For women who work from home or who are stay at home mothers, time poverty remains a constant, and in this occasion with no physical separation between work and home. They move from home care to more home care, or work to more work, without any leisure time, a concept that, worldwide, is largely owned by men. In many developing countries, women do not factor in leisure into their day at all, not even seeing it as a possible activity in which they could partake. Men, however, see leisure time as a right, part of the daily reward for their (more valued) work. This only serves to increase the difference in value placed on men and women: women must continue to work because their time, energy, and the work they do is of less value - men are allowed leisure, because their time has been spent more valuably, and so they are considered to have more value overall. In the developed world it is no less true: the OECD reports men spending more time for leisure than women on a daily basis.

Is it any wonder that global poverty has also been largely defined as gendered: women are more susceptible to poverty and with what we are not discovering about the many adverse affects of poverty, it could be suggested that women bear more of the brunt of these cognitive, confidence, and bandwidth affects as well. While in developing nations, fundamental changes to the root causes of gender inequality are needed, developed nations must reconfigure their notions of success and work to include family-friendly workplace policies and governments that place more value on the work done within the private sphere. Where developing nations must redefine their value systems and prioritize women's education, time, health and economic opportunities, developed nations must work to remove second-generation gender barriers from the workplace and promote women's confidence through empowerment and more women in power with decision-making abilities.

Neither world has got it right and each can learn from the other. Moreover, the rich and the poor have such widening gaps between them that they barely understand the other's experience, resulting in a lack of empathy and co-operation which looks to be increasingly impossible. In a world where gender issues and women's rights are more and more at the forefront of economic development and social well-being, it would seem pressing that governments must incorporate the varied nuances that gender represents within their wide reaching policies. Moreover, men and women must work together for better unity in the long term. Women's issues are men's issues too, and the way in which we spend our time and the value we place on it is an important part of the attitudes we have toward each other. 


*This was exposed to me in a brilliant This American Life podcast last year on the hidden failures of the job market in the US, concentrating on disabilities numbers. In many of the interviews, when people who had been jobless or underemployed for a lengthy period of time or who were on disability were asked what they aspired to, their aspirations dropped significantly to match their current situation. When presented with alternatives, they responded that they did not even imagine such a job, or that such a lifestyle could be available to them.