SDIR subcommittee Study on the Rights and Freedoms of Women Globally, and of Women in Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia

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Photo: Oxfam Canada

Oxfam Canada was invited to testify at the Parliamentary Subcommittee on International Human Rights on their study on women’s rights globally. The study will provide recommendations to the Government of Canada on actions they can take to support women human rights defenders worldwide.

At a time when we witness women's rights activists increasingly under attack and hard-won rights being rolled back, this study is urgent. Our executive director, Lauren Ravon, has shared significant recommendations for the government to act upon based on our experience in supporting women's rights organizations worldwide.

The progress we have made to achieve gender equality has been set back by generations. Canada needs to step up its commitments and actions.

Oxfam Canada's Testimony

Thank you for inviting us to appear before the committee today. My name is Lauren Ravon and I am the executive director of Oxfam Canada. I am here with my colleague, Léa Pelletier-Marcotte, policy analyst at Oxfam-Québec. We are both joining you from the traditional territory of the Mohawk peoples and are grateful to our host nation for the privilege of living on their lands.

As I speak to you today, the world is experiencing a time of crisis. Extreme inequality, climate change and unprecedented food and energy price inflation – all accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine – are creating the perfect storm for the world’s most vulnerable people, the majority of whom are women and girls. According to the United Nations, 339 million people are in urgent need of humanitarian aid – the highest number in history – and acute food insecurity is escalating with 45 million people at risk of starvation.

All of these crises have profound implications for women – restricting access to sexual and reproductive health services, exacerbating gender-based violence, and increasing women’s unpaid care work. The progress we have made to achieve gender equality has been set back by generations. It is now estimated that it will take close to 300 years to close the global gender gap.

For example in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and other external actors have been fueling armed conflict for close to eight years now, women’s rights have faced setback after setback. Gender-based violence has increased by at least 66 per cent since the beginning of the conflict. We know that physical and emotional abuse and domestic violence are linked to the deep economic crisis that households are experiencing, and that families are resorting to harmful coping strategies, like child marriage, to survive.

The conflict in Yemen has created one of the worst displacement crises in the world. One in three households that have been forced to flee are headed by women, and this puts them at an increased risk of violence. Despite the critical frontline role that Yemeni women have been playing to respond to the crisis, their political participation has declined sharply, especially since 2015. In fact, there are no women in the Cabinet of the recently formed Yemeni government – a sad first in over 20 years. Women are also facing risks of arbitrary detention and forced disappearance, and we know that many women activists and artists are currently jailed.

In the North of Yemen, women are required by the authorities to be accompanied by a male guardian when traveling. This restriction primarily targets female humanitarian workers, including our colleagues in Oxfam and in the Yemeni organizations we work with. This not only hampers our ability to deliver life-saving humanitarian aid, it threatens the very existence of many women-led organizations in the country. Pressure on Yemeni authorities and regional actors by donor countries like Canada can be effective, and we saw this result in a relaxing of restrictions last year. However, it is crucial that external pressure be paired with increased support to local civil society, including women-led organizations.

Looking beyond Yemen, we are witnessing the rise of interconnected anti-rights movements around the world – anti-women, anti-trans, anti-abortion, anti-feminist, anti-democratic, anti-free press. Attacks on women’s rights defenders and LGBTQ activists are on the rise. Women politicians and journalists are being harassed, threatened and attacked both in person and online. All of this violence and intimidation is a form of backlash against women’s rights. It is intended to silence women and gender diverse people, and keep them from holding positions of power. This is not only a threat to women’s rights, it’s a threat to democracy and to all of our freedom.

I would like to end by sharing five of Oxfam’s recommendations for the committee’s consideration.

  1. First, the government should finally launch Canada’s Feminist Foreign Policy, speak up for women’s rights in multilateral spaces, and use diplomatic channels to protect women human rights defenders.
  2. Second, Canada should increase humanitarian aid to meet record needs, building up to $1.8 billion dollars of new and additional funding by 2025, starting with a $600 million increase in international assistance in the upcoming budget.
  3. Third, Global Affairs Canada should launch the second phase of the Women’s Voice and Leadership program. In countries like Yemen, Canada should provide women-led organizations flexible humanitarian funding and invest in strengthening their capacity to engage in peace building and conflict resolution.
  4. Fourth, Canada should implement a refugee protection and resettlement system that is based on equity and fair access for all, and that allows more people to seek safety in Canada more quickly, no matter where they are coming from.
  5. And finally, establish an emergency evacuation program and accelerated visa process for human rights defenders, prioritizing those facing heightened risk, including women activists, journalists and LGBTQ defenders.

Thank you again for the opportunity to appear here today, on behalf of Oxfam.

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