International Women’s Day highlights the issues

Every year on March 8, people around the world celebrate women who have made a difference in our society and raise their voices for those who have been silenced. Violence towards women is like a house fire – you cannot extinguish half of it and expect the other half not to spread. For us to stop violence against women, we must tackle the issue head-on in order to snuff it out completely.


The theme for this year’s celebration was “A promise is a promise: Time for action to end violence against women.” This year, shocking examples of violence perpetrated against women have come to light. From the appalling gang rape in India that led to riots for better protection of women to the recent report on the mistreatment and violence directed towards Aboriginal women by the RCMP in British Columbia.

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Since 1909, March 8 has been celebrated as a day to promote equal rights for women around the world. In the past 100 years, much has changed in our lives but the one thing that remains the same is that many women still face the consequences of a deeply entrenched patriarchy.

With the distinction between the treatment of Native and non-Native women in Canada, there is a growing sense of need for more dialogue to raise awareness of this divide. Quebec Native Women (QNW) organized a day of action on March 8, which included a beading workshop and an art exhibit in support of the missing and murdered Aboriginal womens movement.

Leading the workshop was Melissa Mollen Dupuis, Aboriginal activist and co-founder of Idle No More’s Quebec branch. “It’s a traditional way of crafting that brings women together to talk,” Dupuis said. “But today we’re also exchanging information about Aboriginal women across Canada.”

A variety of topics were discussed during the workshop, including developments in movements like Idle No More and Missing Justice, and the Conservative government’s stance on Aboriginal issues.

UN reports reveal that 70% of people living in poverty around the world are women. “If you are born First Nations and are a woman, you have a 15% [higher] chance to be a victim of a criminal act or sexual violence,” stated Dupuis.

These stats hit much closer to home  in a Statistics Canada report which revealed that homicide rates of Aboriginal women are almost seven times higher than those of non-Aboriginal females. According to research by the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), the number of cases of unsolved murders among Aboriginal females is disproportionately larger than for all other murders in Canada.

But the recent numbers only confirm a disturbing and long-term trend. Poverty and abuse are at high levels amongst Canada’s Aboriginals and as the fastest-growing segment of the population, the issues have to be addressed in order to reduce the rates of violence.

Across Canada, numerous initiatives are being started as a result of this year’s International Women’s Day, such as a call by the Canadian Association of Statutory Human Rights Agencies along with provincial First Nations rights groups for a federal action plan addressing violence against Aboriginal women and girls.

The motion calls upon the Harper government to work with Aboriginal people to address the root causes of violence towards female Aboriginals and to establish an independent inquiry into those who went missing or were murdered and finally put their cases to rest.

“Today is really about talking about issues between Native and non-Native people,” Dupuis said. “So we’re having exchanges while we’re beading together.” This interaction creates a way to make connections and present the issues to a wider and more receptive audience. This addresses one of the biggest problems in that there is very little interaction between Natives and non-Natives in Canada. “Rowing in the same canoe for 400 years without telling each other where you’re going, you’ll be turning circles,” said Dupuis.

After the beading workshop, the work of thousands of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women was displayed in support of the work done by missing and murdered Aboriginal women. Over 5000 paper moccasins as well as cards were sent to QNW as a part of the Write for Rights campaign 2012, which was organized by Amnesty International.

Hundreds attended marches that took place later on in the day at Montreal’s Place Émilie Gamelin. Many came out to show their support against the injustice facing women of all stripes and from all over the world.

At Concordia University, Cinema Politica screened Status Quo? The Unfinished Business of Feminism in Canada. The film examines key areas in the quest for women’s rights – specifically universal childcare, violence against women and access to abortion.

In honour of the day, YMCAs across Quebec held an open house encouraging women and girls to try out programs, workshops and the rest of their facilities free of charge.

Outside the cities though, Aboriginal women face increased challenges because of the distance required to travel in order to get better services. “If you’re differently positioned across the province, it changes your situation,” said Dupuis. “If you’re next to a road, you can have better access to cities. If you’re next to a city, you have better access to services and jobs.”

For First Nations, Inuit and Métis women who face greater risk of violence, better access is especially important as violence towards women often goes unreported if it is occurring in a remote region. “The situation for First Nations women across Canada is not really shiny. It’s not all around bad, but there’s an emergency,” Dupuis said. “Just thinking about the Highway of Tears in BC, it’s a situation that should not exist in a country like Canada.”

The fight for justice and equality amongst Canada’s most repressed minority has been a long one but there is still much to be done. One day of the year is not enough to bring  proper attention to these issues. The day has passed but the struggle still remains for many women facing violence and discrimination around the world and especially in First Nations communities.