How Harper’s Foreign Aid Initiative Fails Women

February 7, 2014

by Cindy McMann

When Stephen Harper announced in 2010 that Canada would focus its international aid efforts on responding to UN Millennium Development Goals 4 and 5 (‘Reduce Child Mortality’ and ‘Improve Maternal Health’, respectively), he made maternity “the flagship priority of Canada for international engagement.” Since then, Harper has put the bulk of the Canada’s international assistance funding into projects that seek to help what he called “the world’s most vulnerable populations.”

While it’s great that a world leader has publicly recognized that women tend to suffer preventable hardships, there are several aspects of this initiative that look suspiciously like the packaging and exportation of an ideological vision of women that is no longer acceptable in Canada. This is troubling, because Canada’s aid efforts are championed by our Status of Women Minister as a key part of the advancement of women’s rights worldwide, but the conception of women implied by the initiative is more a step backwards than an advance.

That Harper is interested in advocating for women only within very traditional bounds is made obvious by his choice of Millennium Development Goal (MDG). There is an MDG 3, which is ‘Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women.’ Declining a similar commitment to that goal is a missed opportunity on Canada’s part to help the world’s women (pregnant or otherwise) out of their position as a “vulnerable population” entirely.  The choice to focus on maternal health instead of gender equality is more than just a matter of, as Status of Women Minister K. Kellie Leitch says, having “to pick a targeted area, where we’re going to be able to have an impact.” It is an explicit and overwhelming support of women as mothers.  Without a parallel commitment to gender equality and women’s empowerment, Canada’s international commitment will champion one role for women – motherhood – a political position that risks replicating the systemic oppression of women rather than reducing it.

Historically, motherhood has often been both idealized and undervalued as labour, and Harper’s current initiative continues to play out this paradox. One striking example is the grouping together of women and children for the purposes of defining Canada’s global aid commitments (for example, the “Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (MNCH) Projects” that came out of the Muskoka Initiative).  The “women and children” box is troubling in lots of ways other than the obvious rhetorical implication that women are not full adults.  Especially worrisome here is the way that grouping women with children implies that motherhood and womanhood are interchangeable terms, and that women’s health and reproductive health are the same thing.  In fact, in many of Harper’s speeches on the subject, ‘maternal’ health, and ‘the health of women’ are used as equivalent terms (see Harper’s January 2010 opinion piece in the Toronto Star as an example.)  If a post-menopausal woman needs care, is that somehow not a women’s health issue?

Motherhood is the state of womanhood that Canada endorses, and yet curiously little funding goes to projects that are exclusively directed towards the women doing the mothering. Setting aside the fact that a woman doesn’t stop being a mother because her child has grown up, and that the government’s initiative limits its scope only to mothers who have children under five, thus leaving out a very large number of mothers, creating a “women and children” funding focus can (and usually does) end up placing far more importance on children as the end product of women’s labour than it does on the labourers themselves.  The practical fallout of this is that funding for the “women” part of the “women and children” equation can be essentially erased.  The specific projects that Canada is funding are often more about child health than women’s health, suggesting a serious and yet typical devaluation of the work of motherhood.  Five out of seventy-one projects listed under Harper’s current initiative focus exclusively on maternal health. In this government’s policy, maternal needs are made invisible next to those of the children being raised. All of this makes Harper’s commitment a bit self-defeating, given that political systems that limit women’s function in the world to a reproductive one and then devalue that function are what has led to the kinds of poverty and discrimination that have made women a vulnerable population in the first place.  This initiative does nothing to change the central patterns that make women’s resistance to poverty and violence difficult, and in some ways, it makes resistance much harder for women.

Canada’s prioritization of infants over maternal health is most evident in the government’s refusal to fund any agency that will provide or refer a woman for an abortion.  Many critics (NDP Foreign Affairs critic Paul Dewar, and Liberal International Development critic Kirsty Duncan, among others) have pointed out the obvious irony that Canada’s commitment to ensuring that women survive childbirth doesn’t include offering women the opportunity to simply not give birth in the first place if they don’t want to or are physically or economically unprepared to do so. The World Health Organization has called unsafe abortions “a human rights issue”, and Special Rapporteur of the UN’s Human Rights Council Arnand Grover has said that “[c]riminal laws penalizing and restricting induced abortion are the paradigmatic examples of impermissible barriers to the realization of women’s right to health and must be eliminated”, which gives the lie to Kellie Leitch’s recent statement to the UN General Assembly, that “the promotion and protection of women’s human rights are central to Canada’s domestic, foreign and development assistance policy.”

The consequences of this policy are played out most blatantly in Harper, Leitch and Christian Paradis’ recent reaffirmations of Canada’s refusal to fund abortions even for child brides and survivors of war rape. Despite their condemnations of rape, they seem set to ensure that women and girls are still the ones who pay the price for it. The government’s refusal to fund abortion has been controversial from the start with critics who argue that access to safe abortion is a critical part of saving women’s lives. The World Health Organization reported in 2011 that unsafe abortion constitutes one third of maternal mortality globally.

The WHO also estimates that 22 million unsafe abortions annually are performed worldwide, with 47,000 women dying every year as a result and an additional five million left disabled.  It is reprehensible that women worldwide do and will pay the cost for Canadian politicians’ ideological positions.

It’s worth remembering that 2010, the year the MNCH initiative started, was also the year that the government cut funding to Match International and several global projects that were explicitly devoted to gender equality, and put strings on their funding to International Planned Parenthood.  Changing the focus of Canada’s international engagement from advocacy for gender equity to maternity takes away economic, social and political possibilities from women. So when our Prime Minister says that “[a]mong all those thousands who are being born now and who, in another era would have died, there are some who will not only live, but who will gladly bear on their shoulders responsibility for their fellow countrymen and women, as teachers, as businessmen and -women, and also, ultimately, as leaders,” we understand that, in fact, he has made things much harder for women and girls who will lack the systemic support they need to thrive.

Critics have noted that Harper’s decision to avoid abortion funding means that there is one law for Canada, and one that he exports to the rest of the world.  Harper’s early defence of the lack of abortion funding, that funding abortion internationally would divide the country, is in one sense, completely correct.  There were two options – fund abortion services or not – and either stance was going to be divisive, as the press and public reaction indicates.  The government could have chosen the option that conformed to Canadian law, took into account the most recent research of the UN’s Human Rights Council and the WHO, and respected the abortion laws of the countries to which the aid was going.  Lots of countries where Muskoka Initiative aid is destined allow abortions, even if it is limited to rape cases, or those which will save a woman’s life.  That Harper opted for the second option, a discussionless imposition of right-wing Christian ideology, suggests the enforcement of a conservative agenda through means and in countries where dissenting Canadian voices can’t touch him.

I’m not anti-mother.  Motherhood is fulfilling, creative, intellectually stimulating work.  But for a country to say, both with its words and with its money, that mothering is the best option for the poorer and browner women of the earth is a problem.  This year, Leitch told the UN that “Canada does not shy away from tough conversations about the importance of women’s full and equal participation in all aspects of social, economic and political life.” So let’s have the conversations. The more we write to our Prime Minister, our Status of Women Minister, our Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, and our local members of Parliament to contest this vision of what’s good for women, the more we can ensure that these issues remain in the public spotlight for debate.  And the more we debate and encourage our politicians to acknowledge dissenting voices, the more incompatible it will seem for one small group of people to restrict the choices and autonomies of women worldwide in the name of human rights. ♦



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