Thank you so much, and thank you for inviting me to appear today. As you said, I'm here in Vancouver on the unceded land of the Coast Salish peoples, and particularly the Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh peoples.
As the introduction noted, I work at West Coast LEAF, which is a non-profit organization that seeks to achieve equality by changing historic patterns of discrimination against women through litigation, law reform, and public legal education. We have a particular expertise in how poverty and economic insecurity impact the human rights of women.
Prior to my work at West Coast LEAF, I worked for another legal non-profit in Vancouver for eight years, where I provided legal services to thousands of people living in poverty, and I also worked on systemic law and policy changes concerning income security and housing security issues in British Columbia.
Today my comments are based on my experience of working directly with women living in poverty. I'd like to briefly address two topics related to women's poverty and the ways in which it undermines their human rights. I will then provide some suggestions for federal action to meaningfully address women's poverty in Canada and thereby support their equality.
The first issue I'd like to explore is the impact of caregiving performed by women on their economic security, and I suggest that this role as caregiver is intimately tied to women's experiences of poverty. We know that women continue to perform the vast majority of unpaid caregiving work for children. That work, in the absence of an adequate and affordable child care system, leads to significant implications for their economic security.
We know that in Canada women earn less than men do in full-time annual earnings, which is a gap that has been largely stagnant, if not growing slightly, and a gap that is worse for indigenous, disabled, and racialized women. When families with children of any income level struggle to afford or find child care, as they do, they may sacrifice the paid employment of the lower earner, often a woman, in order to fill gaps in child care or reduce the costs of care.
This is reflected in the fact that women work a disproportionate amount of minimum wage, part-time and precarious jobs, which means that their overall employment income, going beyond the comparison of just full-time, annual earnings, is significantly less than that of men. For women parenting as part of a couple, this means that they are increasingly financially dependent on their partner, even when both parties would prefer a more equal relationship, which puts women at risk of plunging into poverty if the relationship breaks down.
For women parenting alone, we know that the cost of child care is often an insurmountable barrier to employment because, given that the costs of child care are as high as they are, they cannot realistically earn enough to pay for care and other basic necessities. Many women are forced to rely on income assistance and live in deep poverty because of inadequate assistance rates or other forms of financial dependence.
Caregiving impacts women's financial security throughout their lives. With overall lower employment earnings, women accumulate lower pensionable earnings and retirement savings, and they continue to disproportionately live in poverty later in life. The scenario is increasingly problematic for older women who care for their grandchildren or other children, which is a situation we know is common, particularly in indigenous communities, because benefit schemes for older adults do not account for or support this caregiving.
Women's poverty is deeply intertwined with their role as caregivers, which reflects structural discrimination and undermines their equality. For any poverty reduction strategy to meaningfully support women out of poverty, it must reflect this fact.
The second issue I'd like to comment on is the connection between women's poverty and their vulnerability to violence, particularly in relationships. As I mentioned, women parenting as part of a couple often become financially dependent on their partner as a result of their role as unpaid caregiver. This financial dependence creates a power imbalance that we know puts women at an increased risk of relationship violence. It also makes it incredibly difficult for them to leave an abuser, because they face incredible obstacles to establishing security and independence.
Women experience poverty differently than men do. For example, despite being more likely to live in poverty and be housing-insecure, women are drastically under-represented in homelessness counts. Shelters and street sleeping are often unsafe for women, and because they will not put their children into those situations, deep poverty and homelessness look different for them. It often means couch surfing or relying on others for temporary housing. For many women, it means entering into relationships they would not otherwise choose to be in simply to get a roof over their head or the heads of their children. Again, these kinds of relationships, with deep imbalances of power and potential for exploitation, put women at an increased risk of experiencing violence, and compromises their security and their dignity.
Finally, I would like to make suggestions for action the federal government can take to meaningfully address women's poverty in Canada, and thereby support their equality and human rights.
First, the federal government can and should take a leadership role on a comprehensive national poverty reduction strategy that goes beyond piecemeal solutions and looks at the various causes and solutions of poverty in an inclusive and interconnected way that uses the human rights lens. The issues are often areas of mixed or solely provincial constitutional jurisdiction, but the federal government can and should utilize earmarked or conditional funding to ensure that poverty is meaningfully addressed across the country. Such leadership must take place in a transparent way with input from communities, experts, and other stakeholders.
Second, as part of the national poverty reduction strategy, the federal government can use a human rights lens and, in particular, a gender equality lens, to review existing and new federal laws and policies in terms of their implications for women's equality and economic security. For example, there are multiple developments occurring now on issues ranging from reforms to El parental leave benefits to the national early learning and child care framework to the national housing strategy, which appear to be proceeding absent a human rights lens and, in particular, without a lens focused on the impacts on women, despite the fact that we know that all of these issues are crucial to women's economic security and equality.
In addition, existing laws like the Divorce Act, federal seniors' benefits, and many other things have serious implications for women's economic security. Developing a rights-based review framework will provide a road map to move forward to financially support the security of all women, which is crucial for their dignity and equality.
Thank you. I'm happy to answer any questions you may have.