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Baby, have we come a long way?

by Archives March 8, 2006

Imagine you’re a female politician. You’re driven and experienced, and you’ve got the connections, cash and charisma to run a flawless campaign. What are your chances of getting elected? Where in the world might your chances be better?

How about Afghanistan, Tunisia, Guyana, Pakistan, Iraq or Rwanda?

According the Inter-Parliamentary Union [IPU], all of these countries offer female politicians better odds of actually being elected to their national governing bodies than Canada does.

The IPU is an international organization that gathers and sorts current statistics on governments from around the world. The rankings for 2005 came out at the end of February, and they show that Canada came in a shameful 43rd, behind many countries that can hardly be called human rights luminaries.

All too often, we think of gender inequality as a foreign problem; women getting the shaft in far-flung places for ludicrous backward reasons. Indeed, many of us probably think that International Women’s Day, March 8, is a day for other women.

International Women’s Day is especially noteworthy for Canadians this year, as it marks the 25th anniversary of Canada’s ratification of the most extensive international treaty on women’s rights, the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

It is also the 25th anniversary of Section 28 in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which states, “Notwithstanding anything in this Charter, the rights and freedoms referred to in it are guaranteed equally to male and female persons.”

It took years of struggle to ensure that these 21 words, which guarantee equal entitlement to rights, appear in the charter.

What the IPU standings show is that despite a quarter century of advances for women in Canada and in Canadian politics, women are far from achieving parity with their male counterparts.

Canada still hasn’t reached the crucial 30 per cent mark for women’s representation in parliament that author Sydney Sharpe describes as a necessary condition for “major, sustained influence,” in her book, The gilded ghetto: Women and political power in Canada.

In fact, with just 64 out of 308 seats held by women, we barely crack the twenty percent mark.

Why is this? Maybe complacency, maybe a flawed electoral system, maybe outright discrimination, likely a mix of all three. Regardless of the cause, the end result is the same: Someone named Jane has less chance of reaching the Prime Minister’s office than someone named, well, Dick.

To be fair, Canada ranks better than a lot of countries, according to the IPU.

Not the countries you’d expect though. The UK came in 50th, the US 69th and France a dismal 81st.

These three countries consider themselves models of democracy, equality and freedom and are not afraid to assert it abroad.

The bottom line, however, is that while we all talk the talk of equal opportunity on the international stage, at home walking the walk looks more like a hobble.

Why does women’s representation matter in countries that seem to have equality in most domains of society? Maybe because rights are more easily eroded than gained.

For example, American state legislatures are passing laws that ban abortions and test the waters for Supreme Court challenges to Roe v. Wade. Women in the UK still earn 18-40% less than their male counterparts according to a recent British Women and Work Commission study. And in France, multicultural tensions often fracture along gender lines.

Therefore, decisions on laws and policies that affect a population need to be made by people who truly represent that population. That means 50 percent women’s representation.

So what is the purpose of International Women’s Day? It’s a day for us all to reflect on where we’ve been, where we are, and where we want to be.

For more information on the international standings of women in politics see www.ipu.org

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