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Posted by on Nov 18, 2013 in General News

Op-Ed: A shaky commitment to women

By Kristine St-Pierre, Ottawa Citizen November 15, 2013

In 2004, Marilou McPhedran, then co-director of a project on women’s rights at the University of Victoria, was part of a dozen academics embedded with the Canadian military in Afghanistan.

Upon arriving in Kabul, the group waited to receive their protective gear. But as she soon found out, more was being offered than a simple protective vest and helmet.

“One of the Canadian military men was holding up his cellphone and actually offering to arrange prostitutes to the men in our delegation,” she says.

When McPhedran tried to raise the issue, no one would listen.

In 2010, Canada adopted a National Action Plan for the implementation of United Nations Security Council resolutions on Women, Peace and Security.

Titled Building Peace and Security for All, the plan is meant to be a whole-of-government effort to promote gender equality and women’s participation in Canadian activities related to peace and security abroad.

It includes things like ensuring that Canadians deployed to international operations receive training on sexual exploitation and abuse, and that government-funded projects in conflict situations support the rights of women and girls and protect them from sexual violence, sexual exploitation and abuse, and trafficking.

But even with a plan, McPhedran says it’s unclear what progress has been made.

That’s because the plan, which covers the period 2011-2016, includes a government commitment to make publicly available yearly reports and a midterm review. But to date, nothing has been released.

Yet, according to a government memo from DFAIT (now DFATD) staff to Minister John Baird obtained through access to information, the first report has been ready since last year.

The memo is seeking the minister’s decision on the public release of the report, which covers the government’s progress during the first reporting year (April 2011 to March 2012).

Minutes from an interdepartmental meeting held in September 2012, also obtained through access to information, include DFAIT’s recommendation to release the report at the end of 2012 or early in 2013.

If that’s not enough, in a May 2013 address to the Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights, a DFAIT representative stated that the first report would be tabled in Parliament, “before the House rises this spring.”

So the question is, if the report is done, why not release it?

The government is clearly aware of the public interest surrounding the plan.

The memo mentions the “significant Parliamentary and Canadian civil society interest in the public release of the report.” This includes the Women, Peace and Security Network-Canada, which the memo says, “will closely watch the release of the report.”

The memo also mentions the “anticipated” domestic and international interest in the publication of the report and recommends adopting a “proactive communications approach.”

It also goes on to say that “this will be an opportunity to highlight the significant work undertaken by Canada since the creation of the Action Plan to promote the enhancement of the role of women in international peace and security, the protection of the human rights of women and girls, and the prevention and response to conflict-related sexual violence.”

However, communicating results, even positive ones, appears to be the last thing this government is inclined to do.

McPhedran, now a professor at the University of Winnipeg, is the lead co-ordinator of a civil society report on the government’s progress to date. Led by volunteers, these “shadow” reports are part of a larger initiative by the New York-based Global Network of Women Peacebuilders who publishes a yearly report on countries’ progress with regards to their national action plan.

“The single most dramatic difference between the process of trying to write a report on Canada in 2011 and a report in 2013 is that, of the request that we made of the very same departments that had provided information in 2011, not a single solitary one agreed to respond.”

Even more troubling is the fact that Canada has been an important funder of GNWP projects, including the monitoring report itself.

“It’s perplexing, it’s frustrating and it deeply impacts on the capacity of civil society including researchers to actually do thorough work,” says McPhedran.

“We know that there’s good news. But we can’t find anything on the record that we can quote from.”

And given the government’s recent statement against funding for safe abortion sites, it’s no surprise skepticism is high among women, peace and security advocates. This recent move not only shows a lack of awareness for the specific needs of women and girls in conflict settings, but flies in the face of the government’s own commitments to promote and protect the rights of women and girls.

For McPhedran, the benchmark is clear.

What has the government done to ensure that situations like the one she encountered almost a decade ago do not happen again?

“If it’s clear enough that there are specific actions that they said they were going to do, but they haven’t done, the officials can’t hide that entirely.”

The fact is that the government adopted this plan in 2010.

Only by upholding its own commitment and publishing yearly reports on a timely basis will we be able to have a meaningful discussion on the way forward.

Kristine St-Pierre is completing a master of journalism degree at Carleton University.

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