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Province gets passing grades

Highs, lows for women's issues: report card

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It's not a grade that gets a gold star, but at least Manitoba passed the test on women's equality, according to a new report card.

To mark the 101st anniversary of International Women's Day, members of Manitoba advisory group UNPAC gathered at the legislature on Thursday to release their second report card on Manitoba's progress toward full equality for women.

The grade: C+, the same score the province earned in UNPAC's first evaluation in 2010.

Progress on long-standing socio-economic issues -- including items such as health, which often disproportionately affect women -- tends to crawl.

"We recognize a two-year window isn't a huge window for progress on this kind of thing," said University of Manitoba professor Lorna Turnbull, an UNPAC adviser, before releasing the report card on the marble steps inside the legislature.

Plus, UNPAC believes women have gained ground in some issues in Manitoba.

The group, which was founded in 1995 to help hold the province accountable to United Nations agreements on women's equality, gave Manitoba's government an "A" when it came to health initiatives for women -- a full grade above 2010's evaluation.

In the report card, UNPAC cited the birth of the women's health strategy in 2011 and the addition of a new, midwife-staffed birthing centre as reasons for the improvement.

But other key areas of government policy, such as child care, have regressed in recent years, the report card says. Child care, which was rated a C- in 2010, was given a dreaded "incomplete" grade, arguing there are no current initiatives that will fix the province's long wait lists and burdensome fees.

Still, Turnbull says UNPAC, which regularly advises the government on initiatives that affect women, has faith the NDP can start making inroads on some of the lagging issues.

"It's partly the representation of women in government and in cabinet, and some of the particular women who are there," Turnbull said. "They're really committed, capable women... we just want to be partners there."

Most of all, Turnbull said, it hopes the province will eventually adopt the report-card model in an attempt to hold itself accountable for how well its policies address the needs and voices of women. The 2012 Manitoba Equality UNPAC report card can be viewed online (www.unpac.ca).

There is one area experts say Manitoba excels in -- providing support for refugee women. Although finding child care and affordable housing are often major stumbling blocks for newcomers, the number and quality of non-profits groups working with refugee women help ease some of the struggle.

"With all the agencies, there's lots of opportunities for single moms to be able to access different things," said Wanda Yamamoto, executive director of the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council. "A lot of the different programs, there's always a child-minding component in their programming, so I'm thinking Manitoba is doing very well at addressing some of those issues."

But Yamamoto worries about federal legislation that would allow the government to strip immigrant spouses of their permanent resident status if they end their relationship with their sponsor.

The federal government said the legislation is designed to protect Canadians from fraudulent immigration marriages. But advocates for newcomers fear if the legislation passes, it could force immigrants to remain in abusive relationships for fear of being deported. And Yamamoto said the government has not made a case fraudulent marriage is a widespread risk to Canadians.

"The government's not providing us with any stats on how serious an issue this is," said Yamamoto, who is also the president of the Canadian Council for Refugees. "There's always the potential for marriage frauds and people desperate to get out of their country, but I don't know if those merit such drastic changes to permanent residence.

"Until we know what those numbers are, it's hard to say what can be done."

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Report card on progress

Some highlights -- and low-lights -- from UNPAC's 2012 report card on Manitoba's progress towards equality for women.

HEALTH: A

A new birth centre and a new provincial health strategy for women take this grade near the top.

ARTS: B+

More provincial art grants are going to female artists, but across Canada women artists still earn less than men.

ACCESS TO JUSTICE: B-

Half of provincial court judges are women and several organizations provide strong and free legal support to women, but a low-income requirement for legal aid makes it difficult for many to access legal representation.

DECISION-MAKING: B-

Manitoba has a strong history of women in government, even though the number of women elected and in the provincial cabinet dipped slightly after the 2011 provincial election. Also, while many governments have cut back on a status of women department, Manitoba has retained it.

RURAL AND NORTHERN ISSUES: C+

Steep economic, health, geographic and transportation barriers can make women from rural and northern regions more vulnerable to health problems, violence and poverty, and rural Manitoba has a notable lack of women in civic governments.

ECONOMIC SECURITY: C+

Women in Manitoba earn less than men on average, are more likely to be responsible for child care and single mothers earn $18,000 less per year, on average, than single fathers.

VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN: C

The province recently added 18 new beds in a safe house for exploited teens, but UNPAC says the need for services supporting exploited and abused women and youth far outstrips the supply.

POST-SECONDARY EDUCATION: C

Because women often earn less than men, rising tuition fees can be a bigger barrier to women. That said, the majority of undergraduates on Manitoba campuses are women.

HOUSING: C

The province announced 1,500 new social-housing units in 2010 -- but it turns out some of those already existed as low-cost housing, UNPAC says, and it remains difficult for many to find affordable housing.

CHILD CARE: Incomplete

With long wait lists and sometimes burdensome fees -- between $3,000 and $7,000 per year, depending on the age of the child -- UNPAC says the Manitoba government has "failed to create initiatives that address the issues surrounding access to child care."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 9, 2012 A11

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