Open letter to the Right Honourable Stephen Harper

Last week, YWCA Toronto and other Canadian women’s organizations sent a letter urging our federal government to support efforts to bring home Nigeria’s kidnapped school girls, and to develop a national strategy to address rampant violence against women in Canada and around the world. Read the letter below.

May 29, 2014

Right Honourable Stephen Harper
Prime Minister
House of Commons
Ottawa, ON K1A 0A6

Dear Mr. Prime Minister:

As a community of organizations working to end violence against women and girls locally and globally we offer our support and show solidarity with the families of the more than 200 abducted school girls in Nigeria and the Nigerian communities here in Canada. Canada, like several other countries, has responded to the call for international support to secure the safe return of the girls. We mourn, protest and advocate with all Canadians for their safe return and we recognize that work to end violence against women and girls must be a global effort because there is no country in which girls and women are not subjected to gender-based violence.

UN Women has recognized violence against women and girls as a global pandemic. With 35 percent of women worldwide experiencing physical and/or sexual violence, this is undeniably a widespread violation of human rights. Some national studies show that as many as 70 per cent of women have experienced violence in their lifetime from an intimate partner.

The human rights of girls and women are not negotiable, including their right to live free from coercion and violation and to obtain an education. We ask that, as our Prime Minister, you lead our federal government to exert strong and immediate international pressure through all appropriate channels. We fear that the longer this situation continues, the more dangerous it will become for the girls.

The situation of the Nigerian girls demonstrates the dismal truth of the vulnerability of girls to trafficking, sexual violence in conflict and forced marriage. UN Women and the World Health Organization have highlighted women’s inequality as the context in which violence against women is justified, accepted and normalized. As organizations working to end women’s inequality, we advocate not only for the safe return of the Nigerian school girls but to address inequality here and abroad and to de-normalize violence. One in three girls and women around the world experience violence in their lifetime, and Canada is no exception.

As you know, the RCMP has recently confirmed the high murder count of First Nation, Métis and Inuit women in our country. The fact that this has endured for many years does not make it any less of a crisis. Here in Canada, Indigenous women are subject to domestic violence, sexual assault, trafficking and kidnapping at higher rates than any other women. They live with systemic issues of poverty, lack of affordable housing, inadequate education options and racism, as well as the legacy impacts of the residential school system. We echo the call for a national inquiry into the Murdered and Missing Aboriginal Women to address these human rights violations in Canada, and to change social climate in this country which has accepted this violence as normal for generations.

As a country that prides itself on its recognition of women’s rights, Canada plays an important role in international crises such as the one the kidnapped Nigerian girls represents. Since the passing of the Balanced Refugee Reform Act our organizations hear from women facing violence similar to the Nigerian girls, who are seeking legitimate asylum in Canada. More and more frequently, they are denied a fair opportunity to resettle to violence-free and productive lives. In the context of violence against women, the new law contains provisions that will result in the arbitrary detention, intimidation, failure to protect, and ultimate re-victimization of women who seek asylum in Canada. The so-called Designated Country of Origin provision, for instance, denies women refugee claimants from countries designated as ‘safe’ the right of appeal to a decision of the refugee protection division. These designations are not based on country conditions for women facing violence and lacking state protection. Further, once refused, the only recourse for these women is application for judicial review at the Federal Court. However, they could be deported from Canada while such an application is in process.

Considered cumulatively, these legislative changes run contrary to Canada’s commitment through its international obligations to help end gender based violence.

We wonder, analyzing objectively, given the number of murdered Aboriginal women in our country, would an external observer designate Canada as a “safe” country for Aboriginal women and girls?

It is a cornerstone of wise development policy to see education is a major route to equality and economic independence for girls all over the world. As the report A Girl’s Right to Learn Without Fear documented, violence against girls is a continuing barrier to their education in many countries. Attempting to attain an education put the Chibok girls at elevated risk of violence. Canada led the creation of the International Day of the Girl and leads the annual celebration at the UN. We ask that Canada adopt a policy of zero tolerance for interference with girls’ education, and advocate for that internationally through all appropriate channels, including as a focus for the International Day of the Girl.

We offer our insight and expertise to assist in any strategy that Canada adopts to make such shocking disappearances of women a thing of the past –in Nigeria and right here at home. We invite the Government to meet with us to develop such a strategy.

We look forward to your action and your response.

Paulette Senior, Chief Executive Officer of YWCA Canada
Heather McGregor, Chief Executive Officer of YWCA Toronto
Esther Enyolu, Executive Director of WMRCC of Durham
Avvy Yao-Yao Go, Clinic Director of Metro Toronto Chinese & Southeast Asian Legal Clinic
Winnie Ng, Chair in Social Justice and Democracy Ryerson University
Angela Robertson, Executive Director of Central Toronto Community Health Centres
Amanda Dale, Executive Director of Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic
Mina Mawani, President and CEO of Canadian Women’s Foundation
Debbie Douglas, Executive Director of Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants
Michele Landsberg, Journalist & Author

Thomas Mulcair, MP, Leader of the Official Opposition
Justin Trudeau, MP, Leader, Liberal Party of Canada Annie Lessard, Interim Leader, Bloc Quebecois
Elizabeth May, MP, Leader, Green Party
Honourable John Baird
Honourable Chris Alexander
Honourable Dr. Kellie Leitch