Connecting the canadian women’s human rights legacy to budgets

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Isabella Bakker, York University

This entry is part of the Equity Issues Portfolio’s series featuring Trudeau Fellows and Trudeau Scholars.

Over the last few decades, Canada has been a signatory to a number of United Nations commitments to women’s equality and more inclusive economic development, such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Beijing Platform for Action (BPA), and more recently, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The signatory countries, including Canada, made commitments to integrate the stated goals of these international agreements into their policy plans. This included mobilizing resources to realize these commitments as well as the monitoring of progress toward these goals on the basis of the documented links between women’s equality and broader economic and social progress.

Despite these stated commitments in both international obligations as well as within the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, there remain significant gender inequalities in the life experiences and distribution of opportunities among women and men, and between women, in Canada.  For example, in 2007 the average earnings of women working full-time, full year were 71.4 percent of those of men; women accounted for 60 percent  of all minimum wage earners in Canada in 2008; even after transfers and tax credits, 24 percent  of Canadian single parent women were poor as were 19 percent  of unattached senior women (compared to 14.7 percent of men); only 39 percent of unemployed women received EI benefits compared to 45 percent of men; and, regulated child care spaces existed for 18.6 percent  of children 0 to 12 in Canada in 2008.

While women in all social groups face inequalities compared to men, there are also significant differences among women. The erosion of social rights is particularly pronounced among racialized women (29 percent live in poverty), aboriginal women (36 percent live in poverty) and women with disabilities (26 percent live in poverty).

Governments have until now taken a narrow perspective of their obligations introduced in the Covenant (ICESCR) to use ‘maximum available resources’ (MAR) to fulfill economic, social and cultural rights responsibilities.  This has meant an exclusive focus on budget expenditures (and in the case of countries of the Global South, international assistance) at the expense of other key determinants of resources for realizing human rights – monetary policy, financial sector policy, taxation and deficit financing. A more expansive consideration of what it means to use maximum available resources to realize human rights, including women’s rights, would focus on these other determinants of resource availability to concretize substantive equality through benefits and protections in the economic and social realms.

Why the Disconnect?
There are four additional explanations for the current disconnect between commitments to women’s human rights and political action through budgets.

  1. There are fundamental differences between human rights thinking and the dominant governing philosophy of neoliberalism – the latter consciously seeks to undermine the idea of social collectivities and instead promotes an individualized market-based logic of self-help. This represents a collision of a social ontology anchored in group claims with an individualistic ontology that assumes people can stand outside of their gendered social relations and indeed, the other fault lines that signify forms of domination. This tension has also been accompanied by a shift in the politics and discourse of claims making away from redistribution toward recognition.
  2. A related shift has occurred in who counts as a subject of social justice and whose needs and interests deserve consideration. The degendering of social policy and the erasure of the goal of gender equity has been a characteristic of the Canadian policy process since the mid-90s. Janine Brodie, in an earlier blog, has referred to this erasure as a process of the “3 Ds”: delegitimization of women’s groups as relevant voices in the policy process (especially once women’s groups such as the National Action Committee on the Status of Women began to critique free trade and broader macroeconomic policy frameworks); dismantling of much of the gender-based policy-capacity with the federal government and many of the provinces; and, the disappearance of women from social policy debates with children becoming the new objects of focus.
  3. There are no mechanisms in place to ensure the accountability of public budgets to human rights commitments. We need to establish tracking and monitoring systems that link the ability to realize rights such as those specified in CEDAW to spending and taxation policies. In her Spring 2009 report, the Auditor General of Canada recommended that Gender Based Analysis (GBA) be systematically carried out in all federal departments as part of their policy process. This call came on the heels of the Parliamentary Standing Committee of the Status of Women’s recommendations for Canada to develop gender-responsive budgeting as part of its policy planning.
  4. A final reason for the disconnect comes from the skepticism of the women’s movement and the left about the language and politics of rights - specifically, that a human rights strategy necessarily individualizes and depoliticizes social struggles and cannot challenge systemic inequalities. I would echo Nancy Fraser’s insight that rights must be viewed dialectically: they are both a language of mobilization and an institutional device for translating social movement power into structural change. From this perspective, the content and meaning of rights becomes a stake of struggle rather than given or fixed. By linking rights to resources, a case can be documented for substantive discrimination in the application of the ICESCR obligation that commits signatories to ensuring an adequate standard of living through the use of ‘maximum available resources.’ Such a focus relies less so on the legal architecture of the human rights state than on governments and central banks as the key sites for directing financial resources toward the realization of human rights.

A Few Qualifiers
I wish to however end with two qualifiers to this support for “a politics of rights interpretation.” First, human rights activism needs to problematize the national as the sole locus of democratic engagement and struggle around resources and grapple with questions of public power and accountability for realizing economic and social rights at the global level.  As Ingrid Kaul has pointed out in her work on global public goods, many issues today cannot be simply relegated to the national but require international cooperation and resourcing.

As many international human rights agreements illustrate, we still rely on national states to give substance to women’s human rights through social policies, public sector employment and taxation systems that favor social investment for a collective future. This is why a focus on governments and budgets makes virtue of what Dominique Clement identifies as a weakness in the human rights legacy in Canada – its exclusion of social rights, which have always been a critical component of the feminist agenda in giving tangible reality to the right to equality.

Isabella C. Bakker, FRSC, is a professor of political science at York University and a Trudeau Fellow


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