A budget is about tough choices. It’s about prioritizing what we can and cannot afford. As the federal government is set to release its balanced budget, we need to ask ourselves whether we can afford the choices we’re making—as Canadians, and as global citizens.
Can we afford to be a country where childcare costs the average family more than university tuition? Can we afford to fall from first to 23rd place on the UN Gender Inequality Index? Can we afford to let rising poverty rates increase the incidence of both physical and mental illness? Can we afford to let our international aid budget plummet to a record low?
The answer is no. We can’t afford growing inequality.
Take health care for example. The public share of health expenditures in Canada has declined by more than five per cent since 1985, and services once provided in hospital are now shouldered by the private sector. Our experience around the world has shown that women and girls suffer most when they have to pay out-of-pocket for health care. And yet, here in Canada, we continue to offload our health care needs onto the private sector and onto women’s shoulders.
Growing income inequality and cuts to social services are having negative impacts on the health of Canadians, and this is particularly evident when it comes to sexual and reproductive health. Sexually transmitted infections are on the rise, with steady increases in reported rates of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis since the late 1990s. Indigenous youth are contracting HIV at rates 10 times higher than the rest of the population. And it is increasingly difficult for women in rural and poor communities to access abortion services—only one in six hospitals in Canada now provide abortions, the majority of which are located in urban areas within 150 kilometres of the US border.
Recent cuts to health care for refugees have also put women at particular risk. Women who have fled their countries and sought refuge in Canada can now be denied access to contraception, prenatal and delivery care, cancer screening and support in the case of intimate partner violence—all essential health services.
On the global stage, the government of Canada has been a vocal champion for maternal, newborn and child health since the Muskoka Initiative was announced in 2010, and this steadfast commitment is most welcome. But to date, too little Canadian funding has been going to reproductive health care and family planning. In just one year, the UK government spending on family planning was more than double the total that Canada spent on family planning in the last four years of the Muskoka Initiative, with a mere 1.2 per cent of funding going to family planning.
Underfunding public health systems around the world fuels inequality as the high cost of health care alone drives a hundred million people into poverty each year. Underfunding health care and particularly sexual and reproductive health also prevents countries from improving the status of women. We fail women by depriving them of health care, depending on them as caretakers and damaging their health.
As Canadians, we have good reason to value our public health care system. The federal budget should be increasing Ottawa’s share of national health expenditures, instead of the drastic decline that is expected to be announced. Federal leadership and investment is critical to building a healthier and more equal Canada for us all.
And it is time we truly live up to our promise to champion maternal health in some of the poorest countries in the world. This commitment has to include an increase in spending on a comprehensive package of sexual and reproductive health services as part of the Muskoka Initiative, and ending the ministerial restrictions on funding for safe abortion in Canadian cialis aid. For many women around the world, this is a matter of life and death.
Growing inequality hurts us all. It creates setbacks in the struggle for gender equality. It leads to diminished social mobility, and threatens the dream of a better future for our children. Investing in essential services like free high-quality health care, both at home and in our international aid, is critical to ending inequality, erasing poverty traps and boosting our shared prosperity.
It is certainly not something we can afford to ignore.
Sandeep Prasad is executive director of Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights. Julie Delahanty is executive director of Oxfam Canada.