The Munk Debate on Canada’s Foreign Policy, Canada’s first-ever federal election debate devoted to foreign policy issues, will take place on Monday, September 28 at 7:00 PM EDT at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall. Here are five questions we’ll be asking during the debate. Tune in online or on the Canadian Public Affairs Channel (CPAC) to watch the debate.
Canada was once a global leader on gender equality and human rights – including sexual and reproductive rights. But in recent years, this reputation has diminished. Rather than actively participating in advancing forward-looking global policies on a broad range of sexual and reproductive rights issues, the Government of Canada has stepped back from this approach, often taking a back seat in such discussions. While the Government has championed a few specific sexual and reproductive rights-related initiatives (i.e. child, early and forced marriage, sexual orientation, and maternal health) it has also, in other negotiations, put forward regressive proposals or prevented the advancement of sexual and reproductive rights within intergovernmental negotiations. A key example is Canada’s role as chair of negotiations of the annual UN Human Rights Council resolution on violence against women, an important resolution in which sexual and reproductive rights-related policy is often advanced. In 2013, however, Canada used its position as chair to block proposals that would reaffirm reproductive rights and include safe abortion where legal among the package of services to which survivors of sexual violence are entitled. In 2014, Canada’s blocking of a number of sexual and reproductive rights proposals negotiations led a group of 18 States, all traditional allies of Canada, to withdraw their co-sponsorship of the resolution. The Government of Canada has an opportunity to again become a leader on sexual and reproductive rights and gender equality by developing a strategy to guide foreign policy efforts in this area. Such a strategy would need to work with partners to ensure the advancement of global policy on these issues by proposing and supporting progressive sexual and reproductive rights language in intergovernmental negotiating spaces. So what will the party leaders have to say? Champion or spoiler?
In recent years, there has been a general disengagement from global decision-making processes and a decrease in Canada’s support for multilateral institutions. Canada once led the creation of the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UN Security Council resolution on women, peace and security (1325) and the 1999 Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) Policy on Gender Equality, which, at the time, received international recognition. Re-engaging in the advancement of sexual and reproductive rights in intergovernmental spaces includes giving visibility to a broad range of under-addressed issues. In an ongoing effort, Canada must increase its support for UN agencies and institutions; they remain crucial actors in the advancement of technical guidance, capacity building, intergovernmental negotiations, and development assistance as related to sexual and reproductive rights.
In the past, Canada has had a strong reputation of being a leader on these issues. But in recent years, this reputation has diminished. Government of Canada spending on aid has plateaued at 0.24% GNI (despite commitment to a minimum target of 0.7%) and funding for women’s rights organizations and gender specific projects has decreased significantly. While globally, spending on aid continues to increase, support for multilateral institutions, particularly those working on sexual and reproductive rights, and human rights more broadly, has stagnated. Budget 2015 extended the Government’s freeze on foreign aid and the Department of Foreign Affairs, Development and Trade provides little support to reproductive health care and family planning and even less to women’s rights organizations. Despite Canada being a vocal champion for maternal, newborn and child health, UK government spending on family planning in one year alone was more than double the total that Canada spent on family planning in the last four years of the Muskoka Initiative, with a mere 1.2% of funding going to family planning.
Many partners and countries have criticized Canada for adopting ideological stances on development issues, specifically around sexual and reproductive rights. The Muskoka Initiative on Maternal, Newborn and Child Health, Canada’s flagship development initiative, is one such example. Looking ahead, the Government of Canada should evolve the Muskoka Initiative by integrating a strong focus on human rights, gender equality and sexual and reproductive health and rights. Central to this is ensuring individuals have access to a comprehensive package of sexual and reproductive health information and services, consistent with international human rights standards. Sexual and reproductive health cannot be realized through the provision of services alone. The dominant assumptions underlying the structural determinants of sexual and reproductive health of different population groups must be identified and addressed. Therefore, changing systems of power and decision-making at all levels and in all spaces, including the household, community, workplace, State and non-State institutions, and addressing root causes of various forms of gender and social inequalities, must be recognized. A transformed approach must also consider the ways in which multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and stigma create both barriers in access to essential health services and information that lead to poor health outcomes and the perpetuation of harmful taboos and practices around sexuality and reproduction. Support in this area should not replace the Governments’ responsibility to improve health systems but rather aim to strengthen the capacity of national health systems in advancing sexual and reproductive rights.
Ministerial announcements since 2010 have made it clear that Canadian foreign aid will not fund safe abortion services. While in place for the past five years, Canada’s refusal to fund abortion services abroad is not a written policy, and therefore has not been subjected to Parliamentary scrutiny. The refusal represents an ideological stance and is not guided by medical evidence or best practice. The World Health Organization estimates that 22 million unsafe abortions are performed each year, which account for 13% of maternal deaths worldwide. In 2008 alone, 47,000 women died and an estimated 5 million more experienced temporary or permanent disability as a result of unsafe abortions. Over 14 million girls are forced into marriage each year and an estimated 90% of adolescents who give birth are married. Married girls are twice as likely to experience sexual violence, encounter unwanted pregnancies and seek unsafe abortions. Despite legal restrictions and social barriers to accessing abortion services and the lack of availability of safe services in developing countries, abortion rates are higher than in other parts of the world. This reality clearly indicates that restrictions on abortion do not reduce abortion rates; they force women to resort to clandestine, illegal and unsafe services putting their health and lives at risk.
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 Including among others abortion rights, marital rape, discriminatory laws and policies, harmful traditions rooted in gender norms and stereotypes, comprehensive sexuality education, sexual rights, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, emergency contraception, positive conceptions of sexuality and reproduction, adolescents access to sexual and reproductive health services, and stigma and discrimination.