Why Women’s Organizations Should Get The Credit They Deserve

by oxfamcanada | September 22, 2016
Article Tags:
Background media: Up for Debate event

Written by Kelly Bowden, Manager of Campaigns at Oxfam Canada

I sent an email to Google earlier this week because I had an idea. I told them they should make a Google doodle on women's rights advocacy, or smashing patriarchy, or even Justin Trudeau as a "this is what a feminist looks like" caricature. I wasn't sure how you would draw any of those things, but I was sure that September 21st was the day to celebrate. It is an important marker for the women's movement here in Canada.

The end of summer usually brings to mind canoes and cottages, but last summer was coloured by Canada's federal election. It reminds me and thousands of other women's rights advocates across the country of late nights, long phone calls and lots of meetings.

That's because the organization I work for, Oxfam Canada, and dozens of women's organizations across the country were in a buzz. It looked like we were on the brink of achieving something that hadn't happened in 30 years: federal leaders were going to debate women's issues publicly.

Over 170 women's organizations and their allies from unions, the health sector, faith based groups and beyond had come together to put women's rights on the political agenda. The result was the Up For Debate campaign calling on all federal leaders to participate in a televised leaders' debate on women's rights and gender equality.

​In 2015, the "Up For Debate" campaign sparked incredible energy among women's groups and their allies around the country. In this picture, Oxfam Canada's Kelly Bowden and Melanie Gallant show their excitement at seeing women's rights on the front page.

We negotiated for months with broadcasters and the press, got politicians on board, and inspired thousands of Canadians to take a stand. Some people challenged the notion that women's issues should be debated at all, and the debate around election debates got messy, so ultimately we shifted gears, choosing to do one on one interviews with each of the political leaders. Those interviews were first aired on September 21st, 2015.

When women come together and get organized, they bring about change.

Since the election, people have been applauding some of Trudeau's gender-informed decisions: the gender parity cabinet, his coming out as a feminist, and the commitment to include the full range of sexual and reproductive health rights as part of Canada's aid abroad. These steps are worthy of applause. But what we tend to forget is how these ideas became embedded in, and accepted by, government in the first place. It's because women's organizations — last year, and for decades before that — fought for them. Hard.

If you watch the full interviews produced by the Up For Debate campaign (you can see Trudeau's interview here) you'll see him call himself a feminist, commit to the gender parity cabinet and confirm that yes, Canada will fund abortion overseas — months before he was ever elected. Would the government have supported these policies without the Up For Debate campaign? Perhaps. But they wouldn't have political salience and mainstream support if it wasn't for the tireless work of grassroots women's organizations and feminist activists.

A Google doodle is the least we could do to recognize their contributions to Canadian society.

Research shows that the strength of national women's movements contributes to all kinds of well-being indicators: decreased rates of violence, improved health outcomes, and increased participation of women in public and political life. When women come together and get organized, they bring about change. Fundamentally, if we want to build a world in which women are more equal, we need to support women to organize and claim their own rights.

At different times this has looked different all over the world. In the United States it was consciousness raising groups. In Argentina it was the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. In India it was the Womanifesto. Women in Canada gained suffrage in 1918 and we recognize the contribution of the Famous Five.

The Up For Debate campaign sparked incredible excitement and energy among women's groups and their allies around the country. It goes to show we still have so much more to do for women to be equal in this country, and around the planet. There is an enormous strength in women's organizations and feminist movements coming together to do this.

Not every battle that women and their organizations take on is won, or even recorded in our history books. But they are each a piece in a collection of experiences that make our movements stronger. So even if there is no Google doodle, we know that something important happened on September 21st 2015 in Canada.

Women were united in saying that we wanted to be heard, and that governments had a responsibility to build a country for us too. We're already starting to see the results of that work.

One thing we know for sure is that women in Canada and around the world will continue to fight for equality. That certainly isn't up for debate.

Kelly Bowden was one of dozens of coordinators during the Up For Debate Campaign

She is currently the Manager of Campaigns at Oxfam Canada and you can follow her @kbowds where you can see a copy of the letter she sent to Google

Share this page: