I am a 56-year-old woman with disabilities whose average annual income from self-employment is less than $7,000. I am Founder and Coordinator of WISE, an ad hoc group and growing national movement whose membership is women in poverty. Most of us live more than 30% below the Fraser Institute’s poverty line.1
WISE began in the summer of 2003 when frustrated by a heartless and senseless system, I wrote my story of painful marginalization. The story came to the attention of Agnes Lui and Lorraine Cameron, of the BC/Yukon office of Status of Women Canada. Within two weeks, Agnes, my friend Ronnie, and I were meeting in Victoria.
I was close to out of my mind with depression, rage, and was suicidal - all of which showed. Despite this, Agnes persisted and by the end of two hours had persuaded me to write a proposal for a project on women’s poverty.
My isolation due to poverty had left me disconnected from my community and I was in no shape to reach out to strangers. That Status of Women Canada would fund projects by ad hoc groups saved the situation. With the support of my friend and someone she knew, I created WISE.
That personal contact with Agnes was crucial. Had there not been someone in a position to help me through the application process, with the professional expertise to see beyond my demeanour, to believe in me when I couldn’t believe in myself, and to persuade me to do a project that could help other women, WISE and all the good it has done would never have happened.
If we can take one, ten, a hundred women off the street, that's meaningful. That has changed, actually changed, the life of one woman and her children and the family.
Minister Oda, you said that to the Standing Committee on the Status of Women on February 1st.
I’d have taken my life had Agnes not intervened when she did, several women in WISE’s first project used their newfound confidence to improve their lives, and an unexpected outcome of the project, a book, continues to inform the wider community and give hope to other women in poverty. Is that not meaningful too?
WISE reaches out to women in poverty and reminds them of the power of one. In our Scarlet Letter Campaign, workshop participants reconnect with their own strength and learn of their unique position to make the most difference in their communities.
Self-advocacy, an important element of health promotion, begins in communities and provides a direct benefit to the advocate. It lies at the start of the process which boosts self-esteem, and improves health and wellbeing. If you help one woman in the way she feels about herself, then the ripple effect ensures you also help her family and her community.
Your government says that groups wanting to advocate can get funding elsewhere and that it’s not the business of government to fund advocacy. That position ignores the fact that not all organizations are equal.
- Businesses won’t fund groups that cannot give them a tax receipt.
- Individuals are disinclined to donate without a tax receipt.
- Charities are governed by the Income Tax Act, which places severe limits on their advocacy activities.
- The Income Tax Act confines charitable foundations to funding charities only.
While organizations may raise money through membership fees, that doesn’t help groups whose membership is people in poverty.
The only recourse left to ad hoc groups of marginalized women used to be Status of Women Canada. In September 2006, that last door was shut by your government.
The capacity to advocate for oneself and connect with one's peers to mobilize for change, which is an aspect of the right to assemble, should be a right guaranteed to every citizen in a democracy. Yet not every citizen has that capacity, and without it 'democracy' is a sham.
The most economically disadvantaged haven't access to affordable transportation. In many small urban and rural communities, there is no public transportation at all. Communication is often a barrier. Many of us don’t have a phone, some don’t even have a home. Merely to come together to talk about issues of concern and work out solutions can be impossible without an infusion of money.
Recognition of the disadvantage to low income women in trying to organize for change was a key reason that Status of Women Canada funded unincorporated groups. Another was the realization that many marginalized women will not become involved in action, if to do so they are required to formalize their necessarily informal association. Imagine a homeless woman and two friends who, having decided to organize for change, check out what's needed to get funding for a project and come face-to-face with the incorporation requirement. They turn away in despair.
When women in poverty find a way to come together, they must be empowered to set their organization’s parameters in their own way: its structure, purpose, and how each member stands in relation to it. These parameters must be fluid, since women in poverty can never be sure of their next meal, the security of their housing, their transportation, or their health. To address disempowerment, each woman must have the opportunity to fill a responsible role and participate in all decision-making.
Corporations must have a board. This is someone else taking responsibility for, and directing the activities of persons below. This is not a structure where all members are equal and in control of what the group does or where it is going.
Exclusion from the body that makes decisions and takes responsibility for their own organization is the last thing women marginalized by poverty need.
The irony of the current funding model is that it promotes victimhood. It impedes support for the development of self-reliance. Charities are only permitted to fund treatments for societal ills; they work downstream, trying to save victims. Advocacy combined with research addresses issues upstream; it uncovers causes and promotes solutions for eradicating them.
We need both.
Minister Oda, I can attest that speaking truth to power is itself empowering. Self- and peer-group advocacy done by marginalized women emboldens them, and their knowledge of the lived experience importantly, crucially, informs policy.
Charities cannot fund advocacy and now Status of Women Canada, formerly a model of how other departments might advance social justice, can’t either. By eliminating the eligibility of ad hoc groups or committees for funding, Canada’s new government has increased the marginalization of women already among the most marginalized.
I urge you to reinstate funding for unincorporated groups and advocacy and research done by marginalized women, and to keep open the BC/Yukon Status of Women Canada office.
On December 15, 2007, WISE folded due to lack of funding. Accountability was not the issue.
1 The poverty measure touted by the Fraser Institute is the most impoverished of them all.
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