A United Nations initiative aimed at eliminating gender-based violence is asking Canada to put up cash to help stem a backsliding in women’s rights, even though the Liberals are cutting back on foreign aid.
“Women’s rights and violence against women and girls is not a side issue,” said Nahla Valji, the UN’s senior gender adviser, a position Canada pushed to have created at the agency’s headquarters in New York.
Valji, who grew up in Burnaby, B.C., is on Parliament Hill this week asking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to help stop an erosion of women’s rights globally.
She’s following up on a letter from UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, who asked Trudeau to help fund what’s called the Spotlight Initiative.
The project launched in 2017 with the European Union pledging 500 million euros, or roughly $740 million, for projects that work to curb gender-based violence and to give women a seat at the table in post-conflict negotiations.
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Spotlight Initiative works in two dozen of the world’s poorest countries, helping local groups launch projects that provide women with employment while weeding out violence.
For example, a project in Liberia worked with elders and feminist groups in the West African country to help enforce a national ban on female circumcision, also known as female genital mutilation. Spotlight Initiative also provided training so that people who used to do this practice could instead find jobs in agriculture.
Yet Valji’s request comes at a time when many countries are seeing drastic shifts.
Afghanistan’s Taliban regime has banned women from schools, gangs in Haiti are weaponizing sexual violence in their turf wars. The level of femicide in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala is on par with countries in conflict settings, she points out.
“In the midst of multiple crises globally, and a proliferation of violence against women and girls, we’ve actually been able to prove a model of success,” Valji said.
Valji’s office wouldn’t share the letter, but said it “invites Canada to be a partner in scaling up the investment” by the end of 2023, and said the letter didn’t specify an amount.
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She’s leaning on the Liberals’ rhetoric about putting women at the centre of their diplomatic efforts, such as through a feminist aid policy.
“Canada has always been a leader on the international stage, going back to Lester B. Pearson through to today, in terms of multilateralism,” she said.
“Canada throughout history has walked the talk, in terms of the values of the (UN) charter.”
The government says it’s assessing the request. But at the same time, federal cutbacks have the development sector preparing to scale back programs.
The Liberals insist a 15 per cent drop in funding for foreign aid is not actually a cut because it’s higher than their pre-pandemic spending.
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Trudeau faced questions about that last week at the Global Citizen Now event in New York City. He stressed that an uptick in humanitarian crises means Canada will spend more on reactive support _ even if proactive spending on development projects is back around the same level before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Still, Valji said Canada is among the best countries in the world for trying to tackle gender-based violence, in part through admitting to its own problems at home.
“This role of leadership that they play on the international stage has also been one of self-reflection about the fact that there is no single country in the world that has achieved gender equality,” she said.
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She noted that Canada’s ambassador for Women, Peace and Security, Jacqueline O’Neill, is tasked with not just advocating for women abroad but also seeing what Canada can learn from how other countries are making gains for women.
“In Canada, this has been a role that has had an impact across departments in bringing together a coherence across departments and ministries,” Valji said.
“This is not just something for which we have to be focused on ‘out there.”’
At last week’s event in New York City, O’Neill said the backlash to women’s rights probably stems from progress, with women upending gender norms based on patriarchal values, and gaining a voice in governance.
“Autocrats, authoritarians, populists: they’re scared of being held accountable by their own people. And that includes strong women who are urging them to share power, to be less corrupt, to be more transparent,” O’Neill said.
Valji said that pressure can be felt even in the halls of the United Nations.
“If violence is happening in a particular context, against one group of people, we have a Security Council, we have international laws and policies. And yet, when it happens to half the world’s population that happens to be women and girls, we couch it in terms of the personal and the cultural, and literally throw pennies at it.”
© 2023 The Canadian Press
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