Taking Action to End Violence Against Young Women and Girls in Canada

A Summary of the Report put out by the Standing Committee on
the Status of Women

Full document found here

You can download a PDF of this summary here.

In March 2017, the Standing Committee on the Status of Women (a committee within the House of Commons) published their report entitled: Taking Action to End Violence Against Young Women and Girls in Canada. This 160 page document is filled with action items and recommendations to limit violence against women, and improve the lives of Canadians currently affected by this. It is a comprehensive document full of information that can affect change. It is also a document that very few Canadians will actually read. In an effort to make this document more accessible to the average Canadian, I am going to summarize the highlights in just a few pages. As this is a summary, the majority of the text below has been directly taken from the report. Anything that is written/added by me will be in italics.

There are 12 main topics covered in the document - they are:

  1. Overview of Violence Against Women in Canada
  2. Factors Contributing to Violence Against Women and Girls
  3. Types of Violence Experienced by young Women and Girls and Possible Responses
  4. Young Women and Girls with Particular Vulnerabilities to Violence
  5. Establishing Public Awareness and Educational Efforts
  6. Engaging Men and Boys in Addressing Violence Against Women and Girls
  7. Improving Law Enforcement and Justice Systems
  8. Increasing Data Collection, Research and Knowledge Transfer
  9. Supporting Front-lines Services and Community Organizations
  10. Collaborating with the Provinces and Territories
  11. List of Recommendations
  12. List of Observations

Please note: The Committee received testimony from 93 witnesses – 18 of whom appeared as individuals, with the remainder representing 38 organizations, 2 provincial governments and 9 federal departments and agencies. Appendix A of the report includes a list of all 93 witnesses and Appendix B includes a list of all submitted briefs.

Overview of Violence Against Women (VAW) in Canada (Pages 3-8)

The 1993 United Nations (UN) Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life”.

Based on the above definition, below are some key statistics relevant to VAW in Canada:

  • Police-reported victimization rates in 2014 of girls and female youths were over 20% higher than those of young boys and male youths.
  • 27% of Canadian women in 2014 stated they had been victimized as a child, and women were significantly more likely than men (44% vs 16%) to have experienced physical abuse as a child at the hands of a family member.
  • Women comprised 70% of sexual assault victims according to self reported 2009 data and in the majority of all police-reported incidents (94%) in 2014, the accused perpetrator was male.
  • In 2014, 80% of sexual offences against children and youth were directed at females, especially girls between 12 and 17 years of age

Several witnesses spoke of the forthcoming Federal Strategy on Gender-based Violence, and suggested that an action plan or strategy should include:

  • A consideration of the intersectional aspect of sexual violence and an acknowledgement of other forms of oppression
  • A social analysis of sexual violence and measures that address sexual assault
  • A focus on protective factors that promote resilience in youth
  • A comprehensive, prevention-based approach

Factors Contributing to Violence Against Women and Girls (Pages 9-18)

There are 4 specific factors identified that contribute to violence against women and girls in Canada:

  • Sexism, patriarchy, and gender stereotypes
  • Rape culture and victim blaming
  • Hypersexualization and violent and degrading sexually explicit material in pornography and other media
  • Intergenerational patterns of violence

I have pulled out a few examples of the factors contributing to VAW below:

In regards to patriarchy: Walter Henry, Project Coordinator of the Male Ally Network at the Sexual Assault & Violence Intervention Services (SAVIS) of Halton, explained that “[b]oys are born into a toxic masculine culture that has an indoctrinating grasp and far-reaching impact” and that boys are taught “not to cry, to be tough, and not to show weakness.” Boys learn this ideology through  music, television, social media, family members, language, and peers. This contributes to the hyper-violence, street harassment, misguided understanding of consent, and rape culture faced by women and female-identified individuals daily.”

In regards to rape culture: Kenya Rogers and Paloma Ponti, representatives from the Anti-Violence Project of the University of Victoria Students’ Society, shared with the Committee a “rape culture” pyramid, which Ms. Rogers explained as “a visual way of looking at the ways in which sexualized violence is upheld in our society.” Ms. Rogers explained that the words “floating through the triangle are the things that uphold spaces where sexualized violence can happen.

Source: Adapted from the On-Campus Sexual Assault Centre at the University of Victoria, Anti-Violence Project – “Rape Culture Pyramid,” 21 October 2016.

Source: Adapted from the On-Campus Sexual Assault Centre at the University of Victoria, Anti-Violence Project – “Rape Culture Pyramid,” 21 October 2016.

Types of Violence Experienced by young Women and Girls (Pages 19-58)

Young women and girls are at risk of experiencing many different forms violence, which can have a significant impact on them for the rest of their lives. While the Committee’s study focused on three forms of violence against young women and girls (harassment in the public sphere, sexual violence on postsecondary campuses, and cyberviolence)  there are also other serious forms of violence. The Committee heard that young women and girls can be victimized through: physical assault, emotional abuse, harassment, sexual assault, sex trafficking and homicide.

I have pulled out a few examples of violence experienced - focusing on the three forms of violence highlighted in this report:

Harassment in the public sphere: Witnesses suggested that street harassment is often a “fact of life” for many young women and girls and that individuals justify such harassment by saying it is a compliment or a joke. The Committee heard that public transportation is a place where many cases of harassment occur. Men and transportation companies are often not aware that women experience harassment in public spaces and people often do not recognize street harassment as a form of violence. Surveys conducted by chapters of the group Hollaback! suggest that at least 88% of Canadian women have been harassed before the age of 18 and 50% of the respondents had been groped or fondled at least once in the past year. Approximately 95% of the respondents in one survey indicated that over a month-long period, they had experienced street harassment, but only 2% of the respondents said they reported these incidents to authorities.

Sexual violence on postsecondary campuses: Witnesses presented studies that provided estimates on the rate of sexual violence on post-secondary campuses in Canada; approximately 20 to 25% of college and university-aged women will experience some form of sexual assault during their time as a student. Research suggests that the typical victim of sexual assault on campus is a female student and that the perpetrator is a male student. Ms. Dugal, Director of Violence Prevention Programs at the Canadian Women's Foundation, cited a study that showed that one in five male students “agreed that forced sex is acceptable if someone spends money on a date, is stoned or drunk, or has been dating somebody for a long time” and that “60% of Canadian college-aged males indicated they would commit sexual assault if they were certain they couldn’t get caught.” Many witnesses asserted that post-secondary institutions do not respond adequately to instances of sexual violence on their campus.

Possible Responses to Sexual Violence on Post-secondary Campuses:

  • Establishing awareness and educational efforts
  • Improving services for survivors of sexual violence on post-secondary campuses
  • Implementing stand-alone sexual assault policies

Cyberviolence: Cyberviolence involves the use of social media and information and communications technologies (ICTs) for committing an act of violence or extending an act of violence in order to harm the well-being of an individual or group. The Committee was told that cyberviolence against young women and girls is similar to other types of gender-based violence: it is used as a tool to control women, to maintain men’s dominance over women, and to reinforce patriarchal norms, roles and structures.

Specific to cyberviolence in Canada, witnesses provided the following data to the Committee:

  • The most common cyber offence against female children and youth is child luring, followed by invitation to sexual touching.
  • Over 4,000 child sexual exploitation offences were reported in 2014, a 6% increase over 2013.
  • A January 2016 report revealed that of 44,000 images of child sexual abuse examined, 80% of the children in the images were female. In addition, 79% of them appeared to be prepubescent (under 12 years of age) and of that number, around 65% were under eight years of age.

The Committee heard that women who are survivors of cyberviolence can also suffer harm to their financial well-being and career development. They experience anxiety applying for jobs when they know an online search may be conducted. They may face difficulties securing employment because of a damaged digital reputation, and they can experience the potential loss of employment because of mental health problems or because an employer discovers harmful digital content, such as libellous statements or intimate images distributed without consent.

A number of witnesses noted that if there were greater diversity in the technology sector, it would likely lead to technological programs being developed with greater inclusivity and safety in mind. Witnesses stated that the employees in the technology sector are still primarily men, and as such, they are unlikely to understand the intersectional abuse suffered by women, or by other marginalized people.

Note: Cyberviolene was the largest section in this report and I suggest reading more if you are interested in this topic. See pages 32-57.

Young Women and Girls with Particular Vulnerabilities to Violence (Pages 59-70)

While violence affects young women and girls of all social, economic, and cultural groups in Canada, data and research indicate that certain groups of young women and girls are at greater risk of victimization. These groups include:

  • Indigenous young women and girls
  • Immigrant and refugee young women and girls
  • Young women and girls identifying as lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, and 2-spirited
  • Young women and girls living with disabilities
  • Young women and girls experiencing homelessness
  • Young women and girls in rural and remote communities

Witnesses reminded the Committee that these intersectional identities must be taken into consideration during the development of anti-violence initiatives.

Note: I would like to point out that it is likely that women of colour, especially black women, are also at greater risk of victimization (especially in regards to cyberviolence). I would have liked to see the report address this group specifically as to inform the reader what the links between racism and gender based violence are.

Establishing Public Awareness and Educational Efforts (Pages 71-78)

The Committee heard that cultural and societal changes are necessary to end violence against young women and girls and that, as part of this shift, it is essential to educate the public about: gender-based violence, healthy sexuality, consent culture, media and digital literacy, and bystander intervention.

  • Awareness of gender-based violence:
    • Witnesses suggested that the federal government develop and/or invest in a public awareness campaign to promote gender equality and improve the public’s understanding of the factors that contribute to gender-based violence.
  • Healthy sexuality and consent culture:
    • Witnesses explained that promoting healthy sexuality and a consent culture, whereby asking for consent to participate in sexual activities is normalized and respected, would lower rates of gender-based violence and provide support to survivors of violence.
    • Education is needed for both youth and adults.
  • Media and digital literacy:
    • The Committee was told that while social media can promote harmful concepts related to sexuality, it can also be harnessed to “uproot rape culture and promote positive cultural change,” by engaging Canadians in critical and educational dialogues. Media literacy should be provided to all children; in particular, young women and girls must be taught how to critically examine the popular culture messages which tend to push for the hypersexualization of their bodies.
  • The bystander approach:
    • The bystander approach is centred on the idea that everyone has a role to play in challenging and interrupting violent behaviour and that in each peer culture, individuals should be upholding social norms that condemn violent behaviour.

Engaging Men and Boys in Addressing Violence Against Women and Girls (Pages 79-84)

The Committee heard that educating and engaging men and boys is crucial to ending violence against women. Mr. Henry, Project Coordinator of the Male Ally Network at SAVIS of Halton, stated that “reducing and preventing violence against women requires the participation of men who can model non-violent behaviour and hold their male counterparts accountable.” Witnesses explained that while most violence against women is committed by men, most men are not perpetrators of violence and that it is therefore important to teach young men and boys how to intervene if they witness violence

  • Best practices to engage men and boys:
    • The Committee heard about the importance of engaging male role models, for example professional athletes, to speak publicly about the issue of violence against young women and girls in order to clarify that this behaviour is unacceptable. For example, the MAN Program “seeks to use men and boys as role models to start the conversation with their children, their peers, and within their everyday environment.”
  • Engaging Indigenous men and boys:
    • According to Ms. Maracle, Executive Director of the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres, public education campaigns targeted to Indigenous men must be delivered in Indigenous languages and must be culturally relevant. There must be acknowledgement of the intergenerational trauma in Indigenous communities tied to colonialism, residential schools, and child welfare.
  • Engaging perpetrators of violence against women:
    • There are a variety of programs for men who have perpetrated violence against women, such as the New Leaf Program, a program for men who have been abusive and have chosen to stop their violent behaviour. Cathy Grant, Director of the New Leaf Program, stated that men who have perpetrated violence must take responsibility for their actions and be held accountable, but that change can occur if they spend time in a supportive program. Ms. Grant cautioned that men who are mandated to take part in the program for a short period of time in lieu of criminal sentencing do not see the same benefits as those who are self-motivated to take part in the program for longer periods of time.

Improving Law Enforcement and Justice Systems (Pages 85-94)

While legislation delivers important moral messages and upholds Canada’s core values, this legislation must also be enforced and justice must be delivered.

  • Barriers to reporting and pursuing justice:
    • The Committee heard that the first barrier to accessing justice for many young women and girls is at the reporting stage; many cases of violence, particularly sexual violence, are not brought to the authorities because of a culture of silence and stigma and survivors’ internalized shame and fear. Among Indigenous communities, this culture of silence is exacerbated because of a long-standing mistrust in authorities rooted in a history of colonization and family separation.
    • Witnesses voiced their concerns about the high “unfounded” rates in cases of sexual assault, as reported by police services. In these situations, women have sought the assistance of the police following an alleged sexual assault, and have been turned away without an investigation or attempt to prosecute.
  • Training for law enforcement and judiciary:
    • Law enforcement agencies and the judiciary remain male dominated, and these men do not “intimately understand the realities of being a young woman.” A number of witnesses stated that police officers, crown attorneys, and judges often believe in sexual assault myths and stereotypes that define “victim” and “offender” and engage in victim blaming.
    • Witnesses stated that law enforcement officers and members of the judiciary should receive trauma-informed training on gender-based violence, whereby they would be educated on understanding, recognizing and responding to the effects of different forms of violence.
  • Select legislative changes in the areas of law enforcement and justice:
    • The Committee heard that, in too many situations, the perpetrators of violent crimes against young women and girls received sentences that were unreasonably short. Ms. Harper, of the Antigonish Women's Resource Centre and Sexual Assault Services, said that the criminal justice system must change to ensure “sentences reflect the seriousness of these crimes as a deterrent, but also to reflect the often lifetime impact of such crimes on their victims and the victims' families.”
  • Restorative and alternative justice options:
    • Some witnesses stated that survivors should have access to different forms of justice, including the criminal justice system and restorative or alternative justice, and that some survivors may encounter better outcomes and feel more fulfilled through restorative or alternative justice.
    • However, other witnesses voiced concerns about restorative or alternative justice approaches, raising fears that men would not be held accountable for their violence and that power imbalances would not be properly mediated in the process.

Increasing Data Collection, Research and Knowledge Transfer (Pages 95-98)

Witnesses spoke of the need to improve data collection and research, both quantitative and qualitative in nature, on the subject of gender-based violence across Canada. In particular, research on promising practices in preventing and addressing sexual violence would be valuable to governments and front-line organizations.

Additional research is needed, according to some witnesses, on specific subjects such as:

  • Rape culture, the role of social media in gender-based violence, hypersexualization, and the normalization of violence
  • The impact of anti-violence awareness campaigns
  • Promising practices to address sexual violence on post-secondary campuses
  • The impact of pornography on youth in Canada

Supporting Front-lines Services and Community Organizations (Pages 99-104)

The Committee heard that it is essential to provide support to front-line services and community organizations that address violence against women, including young women and girls. In particular, additional support is required for young women and girls who have been victimized through cyberviolence and sexual assault.

  • Increasing services for survivors of sexual violence:
    • Witnesses explained that wait lists for assistance at sexual assault centres can last from months to a year, which is unacceptable.
    • The Committee heard that mainstream support services should be more inclusive by offering programming in multiple languages, by employing diverse staff, and including the religious/spiritual healing practices of participants.
  • Supporting community organizations:
    • Witnesses suggested that when government departments or agencies ask to work collaboratively with community organizations, they should acknowledge the  organizations’ limited capacity and provide accompanying funding and support.
    • Witnesses stated that services and programming provided by community organizations should be evidence-based, but that conducting these evaluations is time consuming and expensive. The Committee was told that the federal government can play a role in encouraging and funding evaluations of practices across the country, to ensure the most effective services are delivered.

Collaborating with the Provinces and Territories (Pages 105-106)

The Committee encourages the federal government to collaborate, where possible, with provinces and territories on issues under provincial and territorial jurisdictions including on the following issues:

  • The incorporation by the provinces and territories of age-appropriate sex education in the curriculum of elementary and high schools.
  • Encouraging provinces and territories to establish post-secondary sexual violence support divisions and stand-alone sexual assault policies.
  • There is a need for provincial cyber safety laws and education acts that address cyberviolence.
  • Support the compilation and dissemination of data and research on gender-based violence, and on promising practices to end this violence, from all levels of government.
  • Provincial law enforcement and justice officials need ongoing training on gender-based violence.

List of Recommendations:

  • See pages 107-116 (here)

List of Observations:

  • See pages 117-118 (here)

You can download a PDF of this summary here.

Reflections from the Halfway Point

A lot has changed since I started my contract here in Ghana in November 2016. I’ve definitely learned a lot and had a ton of great experiences, but I’ve also had some challenges. I wanted to take a minute to reflect on what I’ve done, what’s coming up, and what impact I’ve been able to have so far. I am choosing to write about it here because as I mentioned in my very first post about this work (here), positive impact can’t be had unless you are willing to check back in and be held accountable.

Sister March in Accra, Ghana

Sister March in Accra, Ghana

The initial project I came for was with one of Crossroads’ partners in the Volta Region. After 5 months on that project, I was given the opportunity to move to a new project in Accra that would allow me to work with a number of different partners we have in Ghana - not only in Accra, but across the country. As Crossroads expands in Ghana, I will be working to complete needs assessments, organizational diagnostics, and finding out how we can best support our partners in 2017 and beyond. It is an opportunity that I am very much looking forward to. 

But before I look forward, I want to reflect on what I’ve done so far. The project I started with in the Volta Region focused on strategic development and long term planning, and it was a great learning experience. To me, my work is first and foremost women’s advocacy work, and that is the marker I am using to determine the impact of my time. Within the context of women’s advocacy, and on that specific project, I was not able to have the impact that I wanted to achieve. There were definitely some successes (a new strategic plan, and many organizational tools), and I do feel like some areas of the project had impact, but overall I was hoping to have a more sustainable and impactful result. I am not going to go into detail on the specific challenges I faced because I don’t think that would be fair to the organization I was working with. 

If I expand my reflections to go beyond my specific project and outward to my life and my time here in general, then I do feel my time has been impactful. Since my arrival I have been able to connect with so many amazing women and people. I’ve been learning, growing, and becoming a more informed and intersectional champion for gender advocacy work. 

AWDF's Monthly Young Feminist Gathering Event

AWDF's Monthly Young Feminist Gathering Event

The two main groups I have connected with personally are the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF), and the Humanist Association of Ghana (HAG). Both of these groups are deeply intersectional in their women’s advocacy and work to prioritize the most marginalized women, including women in the LGBTQ+ community (a group still rarely supported in the women’s movement in Ghana). The women I’ve met through these organizations have been great at pushing me to learn more, do better, and become a more professional advocate for gender equity - and I am very grateful for that. At the same time, I do think I have contributed positively to their communities as well, engaging in meetings, workshops, twitter chats, and other advocacy activities. 

From all of these experiences so far, I have learned many things, but I want to highlight two specifically. First, yes - there can be short term work with big impact, but the real change happens over many years. I believe this MLK quote sums it up well: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”. Although, I do think it's important to point out that the bend towards justice doesn’t just happen - it is the result of years of hard work by activists and the advocacy community. And second, this work isn’t just about what you are doing from 9am - 5pm, it is about how you live your life, express your values, and prioritize your time. You can contribute to change at your job, but you can also contribute to it outside of your work. To me, advocacy is not just a career, it is a lifestyle. And it’s important to take any opportunity you are given to work towards positive change. 

As I look forward to the next 5 months in Ghana, I will continue to focus on the impact I can have within the women’s advocacy space, both in my work and in my life as a whole. I look forward to seeing what can be accomplished! 

5 Amazing Women to Know

I love learning about inspiring people who are doing great things in the world. The non-stop bad news makes it hard to remember how many people are out there making a change and lifting others up as they do. In an effort to bring a little bit of light to the internet, I wanted to share 5 amazing women who are kicking-ass and making a positive impact on their communities.

Ginella Massa - Journalist, Reporter, Producer and Newscaster

Ginella Massa is not only a great reporter, she is also breaking barriers for women, Muslims, and hijab-wearing women. In 2015 she made history as the first hijab-wearing news reporter on television in Canada and in 2016 she made history again, being the first hijab wearing woman to anchor a major newscast in Canada.

But she doesn’t just stop at that. She also has a history of working to provide media training to community groups in Toronto. She has worked to help groups better engage with news outlets who are reporting on or about them. Helping them to understand the best ways to communicate their message.

Ms. Massa also writes about issues affecting Muslims in North America, giving voice to a community who is often left out of the conversation. She is someone who leads by example, and is definitely someone you should know about!

Follow her here:

Buffy Sainte-Marie - Cree Singer-Songwriter and Activist

Ms. Sainte-Marie is a living legend, and a Canadian hero in so many ways. She has spent more than 50 years using her art and music to fight for Indigenous people. Born in Canada and raised in the US, she has worked with Indigenous communities across North America, and focuses the majority of her advocacy on indigenous education. In 1969 she founded The Nihewan Foundation for Native American Education, which is a non-profit focused on spreading awareness of Native American cultures and improving education.

Her anti-war anthem “Universal Soldier” has provided inspiration to many over the years, and was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005. And if all of that isn’t enough, Buffy Sainte-Marie will be honoured this year with the 2017 Allan Waters Humanitarian Award at the Juno’s. Ms. Sainte-Marie is an incredibly important voice not only in North America, but in the world.

Follow her here:

Casey Plett - Writer

Casey Plett is a writer, a trans woman, and a Mennonite (like me!), and through her work she is giving a voice to the LGBTQ+ Mennonite community.

Let me pause for a quick second to explain the type of Mennonite she and I are. Similar to Judaism, being Mennonite is both a religion and a culture/ethnicity, and you don’t need to be one to be the other. Also similar to Judaism, we have both orthodox, and non-orthodox groups. Needless to say, we do not come from the orthodox line of mennonites (#TeamElectricity). You can read about ethnic Mennonites here, and tweet me your questions here. Okay.. back to Ms. Plett!

There is so much power in telling our stories, and Ms. Plett continues to do that both through her published writing and through her blog (linked below). She has written stories and short fiction centering the experience of trans women, along with literary essays and op-eds calling out transphobia, the canadian government, TERFs, and calling out the tortured hero trope. By giving voice to this community she is making Canada not only a better place, but a safer place.

Her book A Safe Girl to Love is “eleven unique short stories that stretch from a rural Canadian Mennonite town to a hipster gay bar in Brooklyn, featuring young trans women stumbling through loss, sex, harassment, and love”. It can be bought at the link below.

Follow her here:

Buy her book here: https://www.amazon.ca/Safe-Girl-Love-Casey-Plett/dp/1627290052

Audre Lorde - Poet, Writer, and Activist

Audre Lorde was a revolutionary woman. She was a poet, civil rights activist, feminist/womanist, and LGBTQ+ rights activist. As a woman who lived at the intersection of so many different forms of oppression, her voice was incredibly important to the many communities she spoke for and with. As an early critic of racism within the feminist movement she helped to push the movement forward, and to build spaces for black queer feminists. Her writing was deeply impactful to many people and continues to hold profound meaning today.

Over her many years of writing and public speaking she has been quoted often. Below are two of my favourite Audre Lord Quotes:

  • "I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own."
  • "Your silence will not protect you."

She was and remains a force for change. Books by her can be found here: https://www.goodreads.com/author/list/18486.Audre_Lorde 

Tammy Duckworth - U.S. Senator and Veteran

Ms. Duckworth is a woman who has done so many amazing things. She was the first Asian American woman elected to Congress in Illinois and the first disabled woman to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives (1). She is now a U.S. Senator, with a history of being “the first”.

Ms. Duckworth lost both of her legs in the Iraq war, and she has fought for the fair treatment of veterans ever since - working first as the Director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs and eventually as the Assistant Secretary of Veterans Affairs for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs for the Obama Administration. She also continues to be an advocate for those with PTSD, and has stated that PTSD "IS a combat wound".

Ms. Duckworth continues to break down barriers for women, Asian Americans, and people with disabilities!

Follow her here:

Want to Learn About More Awesome Women?

International Women's Day - Faith, Fundamentalisms, and Feminisms

This past Wednesday, March 8th was International Women’s Day, and I was very glad to attend an event put on by African Women Development Fund (AWDF). They hosted an event on the topic of: Faith, Fundamentalisms, and Feminisms. The four women on the panel represented the ideas of Islam, Humanism, and Christianity, which brought a great mix of ideas and perspectives to the discussion. And to start out the evening we enjoyed a spoken work piece by artist Famia Nkansa.

Ghana, like many countries in Africa, is very religious. It is approximately 71.2% Christian, 17.6% Muslim, 5.2% Traditional Ghanaian Religions, 5.2% Non Religious, and 0.8% Other (source). With over 85% of the population being either Christian or Muslim, these religions do have a strong influence on feminism in Ghana. It was great to learn about how these religious identities can not only coexist with feminism, but also how they can enhance and inform someone’s feminism. As Professor Mercy Oduyoye’s shirt said “Jesus <3 Feminism”. At the same time, it was important to discuss the issues around fundamentalism and how radical religion can affect women’s rights.  

The panel discussed everything from how their religion (or nonreligion) informed their feminism, to how they see the rights of the LGBTQ+ community as part of their feminism.   

A discussion that was particularly interesting to me was around the gender of God itself. Was God a man, a woman, or a genderless being. For all three of the religious women on the panel, it was clear to them that God was a genderless being, and that humans had simply imposed male language onto God. Ms. Kauthar Khamis cited a passage in the Quran where she felt it was clear that Allah was being described as beyond human, and therefore beyond gender. However, for Roslyn Mould (the only non-religious person on the panel, and previously a Christian) it was clear that God was in fact a man, referencing the passage “Our Father, who art in Heaven”. From one perspective, it was important that God be genderless, as this could be a pathway to greater gender equality in religious institutions. However, from the non-religious perspective, God being a man explains some of the deeply rooted misogyny found in religious institutions. In the end, Professor Mercy Oduyoye offered an insightful thought, stating that it doesn’t really matter if God is a man or not, because “even if God is male, it doesn't make every male a god!”. That was definitely something every panelist could agree on.

The panel also discussed the issues around fundamentalism within religions. It was an interesting discussion first focusing on what fundamentalism really means, and who gets to define what it is. Professor Angela Dwamena Aboagye mentioned that she has worked for women’s rights for over 20 years, and was instrumental in opening the first women’s shelter in Ghana, however, she does not support abortion rights. Because she will not work for abortion rights, she said many people have called her a fundamentalist, even though her work with the Ark Foundation has had such a positive impact on women’s lives in Ghana. It was interesting to think about how even within feminism there can be fundamentalism, and to discuss what ideologies are truly fundamental to feminism, and what areas have room for a difference in opinion.

The panel then went on to discuss the harms of fundamentalism within religion. Professor Mercy defined fundamentalists as people “who believe that yesterday, today, and tomorrow should remain the same”. Professor Angela agreed, adding that “fundamentalism divides”. All of the panelists discussed the importance of the language used in the title of the event, noting that there are many kinds of fundamentalists and feminisms, and it is important to recognize that neither are singular ideas.

Near the end of the discussion, the moderator, Nana Akosua Hanson, opened up the discussion to questions from the audience. One of the questions that was most interesting to me was “how, as religious feminists, do we navigate the issue of LGBTQ+ people?”. Professor Angela said that she was going to leave that question for the other panelists. However, Professor Mercy offered what I thought was great insight into this issue. She said it was important for us to ask “who benefits from their exclusion?”. She said she "truly feels bad for the bigots who exclude LGBTQ+ people from religious and feminist spaces. When they [the 'bigots'] get to the gates of heaven, I wonder what they will say when God asks them ‘why were you so cruel to LGBTQ+ people? Did I not create them? Were they not made in my image?’”. Roslyn also spoke, noting that all evening we had been discussing strictly men and women, and she reminded us “as feminists we need to remember that there are also transgender people, and we need to fight for them too”.

It was difficult to wrap up the conversation, as I think everyone in the room wanted to hear more from the panelists. I’m very grateful to AWDF for making space for this discussion. These topics can be difficult, messy, and definitely not black and white, but I believe it’s important to keep discussing them so we can all learn and grow.

Happy International Women’s Day!

Changing the Conversation on Abortion

If we can agree that data and facts exist and that we can use data and facts to prove things, then let’s talk about abortion.

Something that has been proven (here, and here) is that no matter what, women will always get abortions. Making abortion illegal does nothing to deter women from seeking out the procedure. As reported by the Guttmacher Center for Population Research Innovation and Dissemination - highly restrictive abortion laws are not associated with lower abortion rates. In fact, the data shows that the rate of abortions for countries where the procedure is prohibited by law is 37 per 1,000 women of childbearing age, whereas it is 34 per 1,000 women of childbearing age in countries where the procedure is available upon request. This is a very insignificant difference, but even if you take the difference into account, there are less abortions in the countries where it is available upon request (source).

If we genuinely want to reduce the number of abortions - which, as someone who is passionately pro-choice, I agree we should aim to do - then we need to talk about preventing pregnancy, not about preventing abortion itself.

There is recent evidence that shows that education around family planning, does in fact reduce abortion rates. In the US, the abortion rate dropped 14% between 2011 and 2014, reaching a record low. Evidence suggests that this is due to fewer unintended pregnancies (and not restrictive laws), as well over 60% of the decline occurred in states that have not seen restrictive legislation (source).

In addition, we know that most women who are having abortions did not intend to get pregnant, and that “81% of unintended pregnancies in developing countries occurred among women who have an unmet need for modern contraception” (source). Which means that if we can meet the need for contraception, we can reduce unintended pregnancies, and thus reduce abortions.

With all this information, it is incredibly disappointing and dangerous that Trump has now enacted the global gag rule (GGR). The global gag rule was first put in place in 1984 by the Reagan administration, and it has been removed, and reenacted by different presidents since then. Trump reinstated it almost immediately after taking office. This policy “prohibits foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that receive U.S. family planning funds from advocating for abortion or providing abortion as a method of family planning” (source). This leaves the international reproductive rights community in an urgent state where there are only two viable options - quickly secure alternate funds, or close down all abortion related education, advocacy, counselling, and related work. The second of the two options is known to cause grave harm to women, not just through an increase in unsafe abortions, but also through reduced sexual safety.

The GGR has been shown to lead to reduced access to condoms and to sexual health services generally. “For example, during the Clinton Administration, the Lesotho Planned Parenthood Association received 426,000 condoms over two years from USAID. When the GGR went back into effect in 2001 [under the Bush administration], USAID had to suspend condom shipments to Lesotho because Planned Parenthood was the only provider of condoms in that country. At the time condom shipments were ceased, one in four women in Lesotho was infected with HIV” (source).

We need to understand that focusing solely on the prevention of abortion (instead of the prevention of pregnancy), will inevitably put women’s lives at risk. The mortality rate of safe abortions is incredibly low at 0.7 deaths per 100,000 procedures (source). Meanwhile, the mortality rate of unsafe abortions is a staggering 30 deaths per 100,000 procedures (source). If we know that making abortion illegal does nothing to stop abortion, and we know that unsafe abortions are killing women globally, then we need to be honest with ourselves and admit that we are effectively killing women by making abortion illegal. We have the facts, we have the data, we KNOW what the result of making abortion illegal will be. Making abortion illegal could not be any less “pro-life”.

As I said from the beginning, I agree that reducing the number of abortions is a good goal. I don’t want any women to have to go through any preventable medical procedures (even if they are low risk). However, we need to get real about what is going to reduce the number of abortions, while also protecting women’s lives from the dangers of unsafe abortions.

We need to ensure that abortion remains safe and legal while we also:

  1. Work to improve education around family planning and contraceptives
  2. Ensure contraceptives remain affordable and covered by health insurance
  3. Ensure a variety of contraception options are available (both hormonal and non hormonal)
  4. Increase research for a viable male contraceptive pill (men currently only have one contraception option available to them - condoms, putting the burden on women alone to prevent pregnancy)
  5. Ensure organizations doing this work continue to receive adequate funding

With the GGR in effect, and American politicians working hard to defund Planned Parenthood, I would ask you to consider joining me in donating to one of the following organizations: