By Sandeep Prasad
Originally published in the Montreal Gazette
Sandeep Prasad is Executive Director of Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, a progressive, pro-choice charitable organization committed to advancing and upholding sexual and reproductive health and rights in Canada and globally.
Women’s rights took centre stage this past election. For the first time in 30 years, federal leaders spoke specifically to women’s rights with the Up for Debate campaign. The niqab became a wedge issue, the Munk Debate and the second French debate brought light to abortion in Canada and globally, and each leader addressed strategies for childcare and ending violence against women. Now that the election is over, it’s time for this newly-elected government to make good on its promises. And there is much to do on these issues immediately if Prime Minister Trudeau is going to show the change of course he has promised the electorate.
For one, the newly-elected government has promised to repeal the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (Bill C-36). This would be a significant step forward and must happen immediately if we are serious about human rights in this country. Bill C-36 threatens the health and safety of sex workers and is in violation of the same human rights protections that made the criminal code provisions it replaced unconstitutional.
Next, the new government has promised to negotiate a new health accord with provinces and territories. While Canada has a reputation for prioritizing universal health care, the Canada Health Accord has long expired and we have no national drug plan. This is an opportunity to regain that reputation by ensuring real access to abortion across Canada and a national drug plan that would support the many Canadians who are paying out of pocket to access contraceptives, fertility drugs, medication for gender transitioning, HIV treatment, and medical abortion pills.
Still in Canada, only one in six hospitals provide abortion services, the majority of which, like free-standing sexual health clinics, are disproportionately dispersed across the country and primarily located in urban centres; moreover, the restrictions that Health Canada imposed upon the newly-approved abortion pill “Mifegymiso” give serious doubts as to whether the drug will substantially improve abortion access as was intended.
Once a strong global leader on gender equality and women’s rights, Canada has long retreated from this role. It’s time to rise once again to the forefront in this area. As a first step, the government needs to end ministerial restrictions that prohibit funding for safe abortion in Canadian foreign aid, a policy that has been rightfully critiqued by the World Health Organization. Every year, some 5 million women experience serious injury from pregnancy and childbirth related complications. Canada’s strategies need to be comprehensive if we are serious about addressing maternal mortality and morbidity and the basic human rights of all people. That includes supporting safe and legal abortion in Canada and globally.
Finally, supporting a national childcare strategy and taking steps to end violence against women, including Indigenous women, are two election promises that the new government needs to prioritize.
Without access to affordable childcare, many parents – most often women – face constraints when returning to the workforce, often contributing to reduced earnings and male-dominated workforces that perpetuate stereotypes and violence. Ending violence against women and inquiring into the case of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada is a matter of human rights.
These basic steps, all of which were included among this government’s election promises, are ones on which we need to see immediate action if we are going to begin to once again show leadership as a country on gender equality and human rights.