Canadian women are on track to reach gender equality in 164 years, experts say

For 11 days in September 1995, some 50,000 activists, advocates and other world leaders met in Beijing for the fourth global conference on women.

They outlined the biggest obstacles to gender equality — issues like poverty, health care, education — and then laid out a path to overcome them. Together, they reaffirmed their commitment to ensuring that women and girls’ rights are “an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of all human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Jackie Neapole, executive director of the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women (CRIAW), was just a teenager at the time. But she remembers her predecessors talking about Beijing, its Declaration and Platform for Action, and what it was like to be among tens of thousands of women from around the world.

“I wish I was there,” Neapole says.

“There was just this positive feeling at the time that this was going to be a shift, that this might lead to something.”

While Neopole retains her sense of optimism (“what keeps any women’s activist going is this optimism that change is possible”), CRIAW was one of several organizations that helped the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives produce Unfinished Business, a 2019 report looking at Canada’s implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.

Canada was one of 189 countries to sign on to the declaration, but 25 years after Beijing, the report paints a less-than-rosy picture of progress.

“We’re still really advocating for the same things,” Neopole says.

Among the key priorities outlined in Beijing were health, poverty, women in power and decision-making, as well as education and training, and violence against women.

When it comes to how much Canada has moved the needle on those issues, “it’s a mixed bag,” says Andrea Gunraj, vice-president of public engagement for the Canadian Women’s Foundation.

“Progress has been uneven for women who are Indigenous, women who are racialized, who have disabilities, who live in the north, who are experiencing poverty… We have to look at it from those perspectives.”

Earlier this week, Equal Measures 2030 released a report looking at five indicators of gender equality around the world, accompanied by an open letter urging global leaders to accelerate their actions.

The indicators are: family planning, high school completion, women in government ministerial roles, workplace gender equality laws, and women’s perceptions of safety in public spaces at night.

In those respects, Canada is doing quite well, says Alison Holder, director of Equal Measures 2030.

When it comes to education, 95 per cent of girls finish high school, up from 85 per cent in the mid-1990s. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s emphasis on a gender-equal cabinet also offered a boost to Canada’s rankings.

But in other areas, Holder says Canada seems to have stalled. Since the 1990s, slightly less than 90 per cent of women have said they have access to the contraception and family planning they need. But nothing Canada has done since has addressed the lack of access for the remaining 10 per cent.

“I was disappointed to see overall how flat the curve was. We’d like to see those lines really going upward much more quickly,” she says.

“For Canada, it’s a fairly positive story, but there’s still lots more to do.”

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