Friday, March 30, 2012

Legalizing Prostitution

I have been reading and listening with interest the discussions surrounding the controversial decision made at the Ontario Court of Appeal overturning some of Canada's prostitution laws.  The majority found the law to be unconstitutional and decided to decriminalize prostitution to protect women so they are able to report any abuse without fear of being criminally charged themselves.  On the face of it, a great decision.  However, I cannot shake the tremendous discomfort I feel with a decision that condones a trade that objectifies women.  Further, issues around substance abuse and patriarchy will continue to prevent women from reporting abuse. Is there enough will and institutional muscle to ensure women receive the support they need before they choose to enter this high risk career, when they choose to stay in it or to leave? Will they be educated on having themselves screened regularly for physical and mental health conditions? While criminalization is not the better alternative, have we thought this through, in terms of the messaging to our young girls and women? Of particular concern for us at MCIS is the plight of young women who are trafficked here. They are usually brought here under a false pretext and then become trapped due to their inability to speak the language. It appears traffickers will now be able to operate legitimate businesses under the protection of this new law? How will the new laws protect these women?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Canada's Immigrants - hardworking or bogus?

I was at T and T Supermarket today marveling at the array of goods there, limited only by the human imagination.  Who knew coconut water could be canned or bottled and consumed in so many different ways, as liquid, with gel cubes, beans and so forth.   I noticed that few among the throngs milling around the dim sum counters spoke English, and marveled at the sheer efficiency of the food preparation enterprise and the exchange of goods for money.  I was filled with gratitude that Canada had brought the far corners of the world to me to experience and enjoy.  Why just this morning I had partaken of Navroze celebrations with a Farsi co-worker.  

I naturally lament the very narrow view that Jason Kenney and his party is now taking of Canada's immigration policy.  They are trying to fix a system that is not broken. That immigrants struggle initially to settle is true, but it is not entirely their fault.   90% of 27 employees at my office are immigrants who could not get a job because of lack of Canadian experience.  They are an extremely bright and dedicated bunch who have bought cars and homes, invested in professional development and are working hard to give their children a University education.  They just needed that first break.  It is worth noting that while Canada may be spending money settling immigrants, this is nowhere near the benefits it has reaped from investments made by the source countries in educating their best and brightest, who end up here.  The above is all trite knowledge.  What Kenney is overlooking the most when he turns applicants to Canada into a repository of resumes whom employers can pick from to come here, is the immigrant population's diversity and entrepreneurial spirit.  What he does not see is that newcomers who end up here without jobs but with all their savings, by the very act of coming demonstrate their risk taking ability.  When they cannot find work, they create their own opportunities as small business and franchise owners.  While bringing immigrants who can immediately settle because they come with jobs is a good idea, what shapes this country is the creativity that comes from adversity.  After all, do we want a homogenous group of smug professionals or do we want people who reinvent themselves, make discoveries about their ability to survive, change careers and thereby serve as wonderful role models for their children.  When did the hardworking immigrant stereotype get replaced with this government's notion of bogus one?!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

International Women's Day

Some thoughts on the role of Development, Globalisation and Religion on Women’s Rights

Today is International Women’s Day. After listening to an interview of Nayantara Sehgal on the radio I decided to wear my“native” dress today. The story goes that when she was on a book tour in America in the late sixties, a woman in the audience asked of her saree, if it was her native costume and if she would show the room how she wore it. Nayantara is said to have quipped back, “these are my clothes and I am not about to undress in front of everyone”. The point here is of course the tendency to make exotic or into a “native costume” anything that is not western. Interested in carrying out a social experiment, I wore a salwar kameez to work today. First thing, I went downstairs to the coffee shop. I noticed that people were extra polite to me. People remarked how nice my outfit was, tried to make conversation and even made way for me in the coffee line. I also noticed how I made it a point to respond with a deeper voice to reflect my confidence as though to dispel any stereotype they have of me as a meek and coy ethnic woman. I don’t know that I can stand the attention wearing these clothes every day. There is great comfort in being invisible and blending in. As this realisation dawned on me I realise how much further we have to go in the West to break down barriers associated with racial and gender stereotyping. Oddly enough, in India now you can navigate in a Western suit in most cities without drawing much scruntiny. What does that say about development? Is it about becoming westernised?? I hope not.

On this day, I reflect on the role development, globalisation and religion have played on women’s rights and here are some of my thoughts.

Dont you agree that "development" has been a double edged sword for women? For middle class women, it has meant taking on the role of breadwinner over and above gender defined roles. As a result there is considerable added physical strain and mental stress. Add to it the reality of women predominating in low paying jobs in the profit centres of the East which serve the Western corporations. They often work nights under hazardous conditions at risk of sexual harrassment and assault. Since market forces trump everything and laws are rarely enforced against the powerful, particularly if the perpetrators are bringing in the profits, there are few accommodations made to protect women from harrassment and sexual abuse.

For the poor women of the world, increasing development has meant a more precarious life with the widening gap between rich and poor, high inflation and increased cost of living. The land grab has meant loss of traditional land and homes to the multinational corporations and no alternate place to farm or earn a living. It seems like a return to the feudal set up where agricultural labourers were bonded to the landlords, the difference now being there is less agriculture and more construction for the large corporations. Women work in construction under poor and unsafe conditions – and in less skilled jobs and earn lower wages than men. In addition, and due to their indoctrination that they are the nurturers responsible for the home and children, they do double duty. Their plight is made even more precarious by the alcoholism that is rampant among their male folk.

It is not easy to unravel gender politics, given it is inextricably tied to religion, caste and class. The unequal treatment of the genders is so entrenched in our social structures that it is accepted as part of gender identity. We try to fix gender equality by paying lip service to society’s structural context but attempting all fixes from the perspective of gender. We therefore have people who point to how far women have come or the successes of some women – as though to suggest it is the fault of the rest that they have not taken the opportunities given to them. Unfortunately, what goes unacknowledged is that religion, caste and class have a differential impact women. For eg, the return of all forms of fundamentalism in the religions of the world, as a backlash to western capitalism and its "seductive" allure, has resulted in women’s gender identity being defined by their role as the preservers af family, clan and cultural purity, represented by their virginity. Therefore, depending on their context women need varying degrees of support, competence, confidence and courage to withstand scrutiny when they buck role stereotypes. They have to be imaginative and negotiate with people who are rigid, prejudiced and unimaginative. Among the “have nots” women are still the world’s poorest and the gap between rich and poor keeps widening giving them less and less access to the resources they need to do this successfully.

So what are some things that need to change immediately. We need strong sanctions against the abuse of women in the workforce that hit the pocket books of large corporations and also individuals. We need affirmative action programs to provide access for woman to an imaginative educational system that teaches them to break traditional barriers to employment and negotiate gender inequalities with skill and minimal hardship. We need the education of entire socieities on the negative effects of globalisation on women’s condition. Most important of all, we need to demystify the sanctity of religion, particularly its role in curtailing women’s freedom.