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Amidst the downsizing and cutbacks of the recent budget for the Province of Saskatchewan, and all but unnoticed, was the dismantling of the Women's Secretariat. Nine of the twelve positions within the Women's Secretariat were abolished, the remaining three transferred to the Department of Labour. What that move signals to those of us who know that women's issues affect the well-being not only of individual women, but of children and communities in general, is that the government believes that all matters related to women can be handled under one rubric: labour. There is no doubt that the Department of Labour can benefit from more gender policy analysis, but at what cost? Does the NDP government believe we have entered into an era in which women have achieved equality with men in all other areas?
I wish that were so! But as I sit here writing what is supposed to be a piece only on the demise of the Women's Secretariat, I listen to a news item that reveals the underbelly of the beast that is our social welfare network. Today (April 15, 2002), the YWCA in Saskatoon announced it may have to close its emergency shelter due to insufficient funding to meet increased demands for its services.. The YWCA currently offers emergency respite to women seeking shelter and emergency counseling on a twenty-four hour a day basis. But in the ten year period between 1991 and 2001, the YWCA has seen an increased demand of 400% for those services (51 women in 1991 compared to 409 women in 2001). These are women who have reached the limits of their ability to cope with abuse and/or poverty and/or displacement and/or homelessness. They go to the YWCA because they have nowhere else to go. And they cannot stay there for very long. Let's say what is obvious here, but what seldom gets said: it's not men seeking these emergency services, because it's not men who are abused or whose incomes fall below the poverty line as a result of divorce or separation or who bear the brunt of child care after divorce or when there is no co-parenting.
Our provincial government had only just begun to address gender-based issues over its ten year tenure. In the beginning, though, there was hope: the NDP government created the Women's Secretariat in the first place. And the Women's Secretariat was largely responsible for creating, in its turn, the Victims of Domestic Violence Act (1995) which has served as a template for similar acts in other provinces in Canada. According to its own rhetoric, the Government of Saskatchewan is (or perhaps more correctly, was) committed to working towards economic and social equality for Saskatchewan women. This goal, we are told, will be realized, in part, through the development and implementation of public policy that takes into account and seeks to improve women's distinct social and economic realities (www.womensec.gov.sk.ca/statistics.html, my emphasis). Not any more! Money is tight, and there are, the government tells us, more pressing needs than gendered public policy. What can be more pressing than domestic violence, the prostitution of girls, the racism experienced by First Nations women, differential earnings for women, unpaid labour and underemployment, quality childcare, and overlying all of these issues, the feminization of poverty.
The Women's Studies Research Unit, the Department of Women's and Gender Studies, women in the community, and women across Saskatchewan recognized in the Women's Secretariat a first stop for information, funding, and support. It has provided gender-sensitive publications and statistical data for policy makers and researchers alike and it has offered a first line of information for women's organizations and individuals.
What do we do? Many of us have written Premier Lorne Calvert and/or our MLAs. We've sent out e-mails urging everyone we know to do the same. I and some colleagues have decided to put our mouths where our money is: we have torn up our NDP membership cards and told the Premier in our letters that we will not renew our memberships until the Women's Secretariat is reinstated. If every woman in the party and every man and youth who supported women's equality would do the same, as the men in my household have done, I believe we would might make the NDP government remember its commitments to gendered public policy.
Marie Green, Executive
Phone: (306) 966-7524
Fax: (306) 966-2141