This government has supported a feminist approach to its work and has shown strong action in supporting a more equal and just world. A national childcare program in Canada, greater action on violence against women and girls, a new National Institute for Women’s Health Research, a feminist international assistance policy—including ground-breaking commitments to sexual and reproductive health and rights—all demonstrate this governments commitment to a feminist and inclusive vision of the world. They have also consistently stated that they are working under a broader, yet unreleased, Feminist Foreign Policy.
But… where is our feminist government now?
While it is important to remember that there is still money from past commitments being channelled towards these important initiatives, the budget does little to demonstrate an ongoing commitment to gender equality and women’s rights or to sexual and reproductive rights.
By the government’s own analysis, 64% of the budget benefits men, while only 36% supports gains for women. Additionally, initial analyses by civil society partners and colleagues show that the budget does less to support those on lower incomes—who are predominately women, persons living with disabilities, and racialized persons. Electric cars and home building improvements are useful economic and environmental initiatives but are unlikely to be of use today to the majority who cannot afford such luxuries.
A commitment to a feminist approach is not a one-off, a nice-to-have, or something that can be abandoned when crisis hits. It is precisely in these moments that a feminist approach is needed most.
We need and expect from every budget, every year, a gender equitable impact, attention to the most marginalized, efforts to dismantle structural barriers to health and rights and investment in the people and social protection measures that will enable communities to not just survive, but to thrive.
Some positive steps but not enough
When it comes to sexual and reproductive rights, a few positive initiatives standout.
Support for menstrual products will help to end “period poverty” in Canada. The federal government will provide $25 million over two years, starting in 2022-23, for a national pilot project for a Menstrual Equity Fund that will help make menstrual products available to Canadians in need. One day, we hope those products may be free for all who need them, but this is a great step forward.
Another valuable initiative provides additional support for those seeking new ways to expand their families, helping some individuals, including those in 2SLGBTQI+ communities, to have the children that they are hoping for through tax incentives for a greater variety of fertility treatments. It must be noted though that while this will alleviate some people’s financial burden, it does not make assisted reproduction more accessible for people who cannot afford the steep fees involved.
The Government has also indicated its intention to introduce legislative amendments to the Canada Labour Code in the coming year to provide additional support to federally regulated employees who experience a miscarriage or stillbirth.
Alongside our colleagues at Enchanté Network, the Canadian Center for Gender and Sexual Diversity, and Wisdom2Action among other LGBTQ+ organizations, we welcome the historic $100 million investment in 2SLGBTQI+ communities in Budget 2022. Where the funding will go will matter, and funding must be accessible to rural, two-spirit, trans, and intersex organizations and organizations serving Black & racialized 2SLGBTQI+ communities.
While these initiatives are welcome, overall attention to these key issues is limited. For comparison, the word sexual appeared 105 times in Budget 2021 and only 5 times in Budget 2022.
Just last summer, the Liberal Party of Canada built on their 2021 commitments and promised to dedicate resources to counter abortion disinformation and to deny charitable status to organizations actively seeking to limit reproductive rights. They also proposed to look at the Canada Health Act to clarify the need for provinces to ensure abortion is accessible. The NDP promised to strongly enforce the Canada Health Act, which already sets the national standards for health care systems. We will be keen to see if those promises come to fruition and how money promised in 2021, such as the $10 million for youth-led organizations, will be spent.
Reproductive Justice is not just access to abortion or assisted reproduction, it also includes the ability to have and raise your children in safe and sustainable communities. We celebrate some notable steps such as $1 billion over five years for Indigenous communities to help keep families together and reduce the number of children in care, $4.7 billion to support communities as they cope with their past and build a future where Indigenous children can thrive, and $4 billion over six years, starting in 2021-22, to ensure First Nations children continue to receive the support they need through Jordan’s Principle. While these are great steps, the budget’s focus on affordable housing does not sufficiently address the housing crisis facing homeless people and renters. Fulfillment of the right to housing is a key social determinant of sexual and reproductive health and should be guaranteed for every person in Canada.
Similarly absent from the budget are indications that the government intends to move toward the guarantee of a liveable basic income, the decriminalization of drugs and a pathway to regularization for undocumented migrants in Canada, all essential steps to ensure people’s access to health care and the realization of their human rights. About one third of the people Action Canada assists through our Norma Scarborough Emergency Fund are undocumented. If a government is committed to ensuring better access to abortion care and to reproductive justice (which includes family reunification) status for all is an essential step.
How does Canada’s international budget rank?
At a global level, this budget has dropped any feminist consideration in favour of defense rhetoric, militarization, and a patriarchal version of promoting democracy devoid of any feminist analysis.
The work of feminist and human rights organizations should not be seen as separate from the “serious” business of strengthening democracy and human rights. The government has an important role to play in ensuring that, through the Feminist International Assistance Policy, Canada is supporting the feminist movements around the world doing the hard work of holding governments accountable, pushing for legal and policy change that benefit all people, and practising transnational solidarity that is the backbone of a more peaceful and just world.
This budget speaks to Putin and the invasion of Ukraine as a threat to our safety, which prompted immediate investment in armed forces. The budget references the need to equip Canada for “a world that has become more dangerous.” To quote the budget, “images of Russian tanks rolling across Ukraine didn’t change the fundamental goal of this budget […but have] reinforced our deepest conviction” of the value of democracy.
Strengthening democracy is not about increased military spending
Canada’s place in the world cannot be solely focused on reinforcing Canada’s national defense. This approach to Canada’s role in the world does not align with a Feminist Foreign Policy and there is no mention of the women, peace, and security agenda. UN Women UN High Level Officials have urged the swift investigation of sexual violence allegations and call for strengthened measures to protect women and girls in Ukraine. The UNFPA estimates that there were some 265,000 pregnant women in Ukraine at the start of the military offensive. Sexual and reproductive health and rights needs do not go away in time of crisis, if anything, they become more urgent.
Strengthening democracy is about the strongest possible commitment to a robust and vibrant civil society, to feminist movements; to greater participation of women in peace and peace negotiations; and, to increasing gender equality, particularly through the protection of sexual and reproductive health and rights at home and abroad.
The fight against sexual and reproductive rights cannot be separated from larger anti-rights and anti-democratic movements. Hostility to sexual and reproductive health and rights binds many political agendas. It is no coincidence that women’s rights and sexual and reproductive health and rights are being rolled back as we see a rise in populism and authoritarianism.
In recent years, we have seen the concurrent rise of antidemocratic leaders and direct attacks on sexual and reproductive rights in several countries, as they are mutually supporting dynamics. “Anti-gender” movements have proliferated in Europe, Latin America, and the United States, threatening the right to gender equality. This is the work we need to see Canada addressing in its budget.
Looking ahead: what we’re waiting to see…
Budget 2022 commits funding to address threats related to misinformation and disinformation in a key intervention to strengthen democracy. To truly address these threats, Canada must not ignore the clear link between the rise in rhetoric opposing gender equality and sexual and reproductive health and rights and the rise in anti-democratic assaults.
Canada has a role to play in countering these attacks by being a strong champion for sexual and reproductive health and rights at home and abroad.
Human rights, democracy, and comprehensive sexuality education
The funding of anti-gender equality activism is transnational and is undermining decades of progress on women’s rights and gender equality around the world.
It is also anti-democratic in nature and is based on mis/disinformation. To ensure that people have the information they need, we continue to call for federal leadership and for investments in comprehensive sexuality education, which plays a key role in the realization of a wide set of rights relating to sexuality, gender, reproduction, livelihoods, and education.
Many states from all regions of the world have recognized the transformative impact of comprehensive sexuality education and have taken political, financial, and policy steps to ensure that children and young people have access to high quality and scientifically accurate comprehensive sexuality education within their jurisdictions.
In 2018, Canada was urged by the United Nations to standardize comprehensive sexuality education across the country. We need federal leadership on comprensive sexuality education, which requires investments to ensure the capacity for provinces and territories to comply with the 2019 Canadian Guidelines on Sexuality Education.
Federal health transfers
Similar to the proposed Canada Mental Health Transfer, which would support the expansion and delivery of high quality and accessible mental health services across Canada, we also call for a new federal transfer to ensure equitable access to sexual and reproductive health services. Nothing short of such an investment will be able to effectively address the unequal, and in some areas dire, access to sexual and reproductive health care—from labour care to gender affirming care to contraceptive care, STI testing and treatment to abortion care.
In pre-budget consultations with the federal government, we have recommended the development of a new federal transfer to provinces and territories—the Sexual and Reproductive Health Transfer—to assist jurisdictions to expand the delivery of high-quality and accessible sexual and reproductive health services, including abortion care. We regret that this is not reflected in the budget and continue to insist that Canada ensure all people have equal access to sexual and reproductive health care.
Pharmacare and universal access to contraception
Canada must also ensure equitable access to contraception. Lack of public funding for contraception indisputably discriminates against people who can get pregnant. In Canada, the cost of oral contraceptive pills (the least expensive one-time purchase) costs approximately $30 per pack, adding up to $10,000 in a person’s lifetime.
Many individuals in Canada are falling through the cracks, not covered by private insurance, or qualifying for government coverage, and unable to afford the medicine and devices they need to manage their fertility. With these gaps in drug coverage disproportionately affecting certain populations, the absence of universal cost-coverage for contraception is an equity issue. For thousands of Canadians, contraception is a daily worry and expense. The current government must invest in equity and meaningful options by funding all contraception, for everyone. We are hopeful that the upcoming negotiations for a national Pharmacare program will yield budgetary investments that uphold reproductive and sexual health and rights for all.
The way forward demands that we pay attention to the whole picture
It demands that feminist and human rights organizations and movements are sustainably funded to ensure we continue to build our futures together, empowered, and loud, leading the way to our own liberation.
It demands that we uphold the human rights of all people through our politics and our budgets.