I'd like to thank the committee for inviting me here today to speak about what can be done to better protect women and girls from violence.
My name is Kathryn Marshall. I am a lawyer in Vancouver and also a columnist. I have spent many years writing and researching the issue of violence against women and girls. I have a degree in women's studies, with an honours specialization in feminist research.
At the heart of this bill is gender equality and the right of women and girls to be equal in Canada. As a woman, I feel very fortunate that I was born in a country in which the rights of women and girls are protected and in which we are equal to men. I feel fortunate that my daughter was born in a country where her gender does not sentence her to a lifetime of second-class citizenship.
At the core is the fact that equality is a fundamental human right in Canada. It is a core of who we are as people, a core value. It's something that cannot be taken for granted. We have to protect it and preserve it.
Unfortunately, there are many parts of the world that have no equality provisions, in which women have no rights at all. There are places in the world where women cannot work, cannot go to school, cannot drive a car, cannot wear what they want, cannot travel; they can hardly do anything. This is a reality in 2015. It's hard to believe, but this is the case.
Women and girls around the world are also subjected to absolutely horrendous practices, things such as female genital mutilation, polygamy, child marriage, slavery, sex slavery, trafficking, and so-called honour-related violence that often leaves women and girls dead or severely wounded and maimed.
The reality is that many of these practices are deeply rooted in culture and are deeply embedded within various cultural societies. They are in fact condoned, if not encouraged, in many parts of the world. You can commit heinous crimes and there will be no legal repercussions, because it is culturally okay to do these things. In the society we live in today, in a world where people migrate, move, and travel, women and girls are at risk no matter where they are living.
Often the perpetrators of these horrendous acts feel that they are justified in what they are doing because they believe their culture sanctions them in doing so. They often raise their cultural differences as a defence to these horrendous acts against women and girls. This is very common not only in parts of the world where these acts are legal but also in parts of the world where they are not—places such as Canada, the U.K., the U.S., parts of Europe, Australia. This is a global problem, and it's one we simply cannot ignore.
Gender equality should never be taken for granted, even in a place like Canada, where it is a core value of who we are as people. Critics of this bill have said that such horrendous acts as honour killings, polygamy, and child marriage should not be a priority of this government because they don't happen with enough frequency in this country. To those critics I would say that one occurrence of these brutal and un-Canadian acts is one enough: there should never be any of these acts. We should always take action. The reality is that we're not talking about a few isolated incidents. This is something that's becoming increasingly more common. The trend seems to be that's it's occurring with more frequency each year.
With the passage of this bill, Canada will be joining other nations that have taken a strong stance against forced and child marriage by making it illegal. It is important this law include criminal consequences for people who organize, participate in, pressure, and facilitate child marriage and marriage without consent. It is often the pressure from family and community that is forcing these young women and girls to engage in these marriages.
Canada does not currently have a minimum age for marriage. We need to protect children from abuse by making the legal age for marriage the same as the legal age for consent in this country. It needs to be codified. We can't simply rely on the common law. The common law is something that's very much open to interpretation; that's the nature of it. It should be codified. It's extremely important.
I know there has been a lot of criticism directed towards the name of this bill, which is the zero tolerance for barbaric cultural practices act. Language is extremely important. It has long played a major role in defining the debate around violence against women. Any introductory-level women's studies course will include a unit on language, because when it comes to gender and gender construction, frankly, language is extremely important. It can be used as a tool, it can be used as a device, it can be used as a sword and a shield.
Before 1983 in Canada a husband could rape his wife, and this was not considered a crime; marital rape was in fact legal. This was only 32 years ago. Then there came a movement, which was led by women's rights activists, to call this act of non-consensual sex exactly what it is, sexual assault. It was only then that spousal rape was criminalized in Canada.
Even the term “rape” has been removed from our Criminal Code and replaced with the term “sexual assault”. This was due to the acknowledgement that the word rape is a loaded gender term and has been stigmatized and treated differently from other forms of violent assault throughout our social and legal history.
There was a time when domestic violence was legally sanctioned in this country. In the 18th century, according to British common law, a husband could physically abuse his wife if she disobeyed him, as long as he—and these are exact words from British common law—used a weapon “no bigger than his thumb”. So in our social and legal history, domestic violence has been treated as a private matter. It was not until the 1970s that awareness campaigns around domestic violence pushed the issue out into the open.
But the term “domestic violence” is a problematic one, because it tends to be interpreted as violence between intimate partners. There is now a tendency to label honour violence as domestic violence. However, this term is not really appropriate, because a lot of honour violence is not between intimate partners but between family members, friends, uncles, aunts, cousins, in-laws, parents. Frankly, “domestic” violence can be interpreted as something that is only within the home and is not an issue of social and community concern. The horrifying reality is that culture is an essential part of honour violence. In parts of the world it is condoned and is legal. We must not be afraid to label barbaric practices as what they are.
I think that calling the bill what it currently is called shows a strong stance. History has shown us that language is an important tool, and we should use it. We should call these acts what they are, which is barbaric.