The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: women

Women & Global Peace: Inseperable

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WE KNOW THAT THE GOVERNMENT OF CANADA IS undergoing a significant review as to where it would like to place its 600 peacekeepers in the near future. In this troubled world, the opportunities for involvement seem almost endless, although it appears likely that the deployment will occur somewhere on the African continent.

Many Canadians like the idea of returning to peacekeeping as a valid Canadian extension to the world, whether or not people choose to describe it by another term like peacebuilding or peacemaking. Yet given this country’s heightened awareness placed upon the role of women in its development programs, it would be helpful to look through a similar lens when considering anything to do with military peacekeeping. We’re not talking about female soldiers here, but the possibility of putting a gender lens over our involvement in conflict areas.

Only a week ago, the United Nations Security Council held an Open Debate on women, peace, and security to discuss the protection of women and girls in conflict areas. The timing is crucial since violence in Syria, South Sudan, Iraq, Colombia, and Nigeria has greatly increased the threat to women and girls. It’s all part of a larger picture, where international assistance has tripled in 10 years and some 80% of those targeted by such aid are affected by armed conflict.

Let’s put it another way. The cost of all this violence is $13.6 trillion (US). With all these numbers on the rise, the risk to girls and women threatens to undermine much of the global advancement made in gender security and programs in recent years.

So, this is pretty serious stuff. But it’s also essential that it be dealt with – not because protecting women and girls is just the right thing to do – it is – but because it puts things on a faster track to peace, which everyone wants. A huge study put out by the United Nations, involving peacekeeping operations, peacekeeping architecture, and the role of women, came to an important conclusion: the vital participation of women is the most vital and frequently neglected component of peaceful security. Put plainly: the more we invest in women and girls, the more effectively peace can be planted in troubled regions. This doesn’t come as a shock, but it is a reminder that building future peace through peacekeeping without empowering the role of women is a poor investment. One aspect of the UN study showed that over the course of 15 years, the chance of peace enduring is 35% higher when women are included in the follow-up.

The UN report ended up listing over 100 recommendations of how women could be better included in peace negotiations and their aftermath. A key recommendation – game-changing if it were enforced – is for the establishment of an Informal Expert Group on Women, Peace and Security as an extension of the Security Council itself. This recommendation was implemented in February and already the input from around the world has been significant. Eventually, the goal is to infuse the necessity of these findings throughout the entire UN architecture.

For all this to have real effect, UN member nations must actively support this Informal Expert Group and implement their recommendations. This is where the true test will come, for there are still nations that don’t mind giving verbal support to such ideas but have no intention whatsoever of implementing them. Canada, with its strong emphasis for the past decade on women and girls, could play a leading role in not only steering the recommendations through the UN system, but in also using its reputation and economic clout through trade and development to bring recalcitrant nations online. And should it up its support of such a role, it must be broadcast to the Canadian people in general, instead of being isolated in the lengthy corridors of the UN structures themselves, it’s successes and failures destined for obscurity.

For those of us involved in international development in regions of conflict, especially in Africa, this new UN effort is what many have sought for years. For women’s groups in advanced nations, the initiative is a workable way of showing solidarity for their struggling counterparts half a world away. And for the state of the world in general, especially as it seeks to find a peaceful future, it is one of the greatest investments that can be made.

Blood Purple

Glen jumping

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.” … Albert Einstein

WHEN I ASSESS WHAT I EXPERIENCED YESTERDAY through these observations of Einstein, I realize I was never more fully alive. Standing before a filled to capacity Alumni Hall at Western University, and for the first time in life being introduced as “Doctor Glen Pearson,” I was carried along by emotions not of my own making and immersed in tradition far greater than any single life.

And yet the subject of my commencement speech was the sheer power of the enlightened individual. Before me sat graduates, all gowned in Western’s purple, who were about set to unleash their great talents and passions on a world that would surely be shaped different by their efforts. And for that brief few moments, all that youth and vitality mixed with my older years into what was the graduated class of 2014.

I had been robed earlier and stood with my family and Western President Amit Chakma for some official pictures, feeling welcomed and honoured, as only great educational institutions can accomplish. Filing in with the other dignitaries through the gathering of those who were about to become my graduating peers was a kind of baptism into a new family, keen of mind and prone for adventure.

No sooner was I bestowed with the Honourary Doctorate of Laws than I was asked to address the graduates, their families, and the faculty. I had been prepared, but the moment I stepped up to the microphone, it was immediately apparent to me that I was filled with a kind of awe – an historical mystery of time and place that makes one feel ennobled and humbled in the same moment. For the briefest of seconds I couldn’t speak. I was being swallowed up and singled out by tradition in a single act of great kindness and honour that only a great university can bestow.

I spoke of what the moment meant to my family. There before me was Margaret Roy, my mother-in-law – 91-years old and a woman of pioneering spirit who graduated from Western University in the year of my birth, 1950. When she was singled out, the audience welcomed and honoured her with warm applause. But present too were my wife Jane and a number of my children who were Western graduates. My three Sudanese kids will soon be graduating from those hallowed halls as well. And now, for the very first time, I would join the great Western family as one of its own.  Our veins would flow purple.

But the heart of the speech was really about the power of the individual and its capacity to shape and better the world. I recalled the words of Jane Austen – “A woman, especially if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can” – and stated that it was finally time to file such an outlook into the history books. There before me were hundreds of graduates and most of them were women, about ready to challenge their world, not only by their presence, but their abilities and gifts. Yet rather than merely applaud that fact, why not actually give them positions of leadership as a way of embracing a better form of humanity – more inclusive, gifted, and equal?

The remainder of my speech I don’t recall so well. I was, fully and meaningfully, lost in the body of my peers. All that I would expect of them, I must accept of myself. If they were brimming with potential, then so was I, despite my years. In an instant I knew that the standing ovation that resulted said more about the dedicated hopes and aspirations of those graduates and their families than in any words I could have shaped. It was their way of saying, “We’re set and ready to make the world a place to which our dreams call us.

I went into the day as a citizen and came away from it an honoured soul. With my mother-in-law, my 7 children, 4 grandchildren, and numerous friends, I stood in awe of the power of an enlightened institution about to be infused with a renewed legacy of teeming life. And I realized that, while some pursue meaning, all of these people who filled my day were about to create it. The world would never quite be the same because of that potential.

If the greatest thing about wisdom is to spot the miraculous in the common, then yesterday was a moment of great clarity and promise. The awe of it remains with me today, but the responsibility towards the creation of that new world now weighs heavier on all those who were present yesterday. We are up to the task.

Poverty in Canada Has a Woman’s Face

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FOUR YEARS AGO I ATTENDED AN INTERNATIONAL poverty forum with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.  We had been cooperating on an initiative for helping African girls to stay in school and he was a forceful proponent for equal opportunities in that continent for men and women.

At one point he was asked what would be the one thing that he could do, if he had it in his power, to get rid of African poverty.  It was a big question, but his answer was bigger: “Invest in the women of every African country.”  The silence following that response was deafening because everyone in that room was seasoned in international development and Blair’s solution was almost breathtaking in its simplicity and scope.

It’s easy to talk about poverty among women on other continents – the stats confront of us everyday and are daunting.  When we close our eyes and think about the desperately poor it is inevitable that the image of a woman and her child come to mind.

What image do we envision when we think of the increasing poverty problem in Canada?  I asked four people that question yesterday and nothing particular came to mind.  Somehow we have delinked low-income existences with women and as a result Canadian poverty remains somewhat ethereal to us all.  Consider some of these stats:

  • With the recent economic crisis, some 4.8 millions Canadians are poor.  Of that number
  • 36% of Aboriginal women are mired in poverty
  • 35% of visible minority women are poor
  • 26% of the poor are women with disabilities
  • 21% are single parent mothers (7% of single parent fathers are poor)
  • Of senior single women 14% have fallen into poverty

Canada’s poverty rate ranks us 20th out of 31 OECD countries.  When you consider the data on women in poverty the numbers are even worse.  We continue to hear how Canada came out of the economic downturn better off that other developed nations, but when seen through the lens of women in challenging situations, that’s a bit difficult to accept.  Some intrepid women economists continually remind world leaders that economic inequality between men and women reached it highest points in 1929 and 2007, directly preceding the two worst financial meltdowns in the past 100 years.  When we increasingly get equality wrong, it’s inevitable that we’ll be in a world of hurt as a nation.

Following the London Food Bank’s announcement last week that it was researching closing its doors in order to find better solutions within neighbourhoods where families could get better care, there were numerous responses – most, I’m happy to say, were highly positive.  The fiercest critic was a London woman who has had a good life and who feels it shouldn’t be too much to ask for people to travel across town to the food bank.  She gracefully listened to some key points in return.

  • 80% of all lone parent families are headed by women (over 1 millions families)
  • Single moms have a net worth of roughly $17,000, while for single dads it’s around $80,000
  • The vast majority of children living in poverty are cared for by their mother, so if it’s true that kids who are poor suffer from higher rates of asthma, diabetes, mental health issues, and even heart disease, then it stands to reason that the chief burden bearer of all these ills is the mother.  The load is staggering.
  • Women who leave a partner to raise children on their own are more than five times likely to live in poverty than if they had stayed with that partner
  • 70% of part-time workers and 66% of minimum wager earners are women
  • Women who were in similar job situations receive only 71% of what a man makes
  • Women spend almost twice as much time doing unpaid work as men

Look, I’m not trying to pile it on here, but numbers like these are compelling enough to cause us to make some economic changes.  That’s what happened to this woman I was speaking with.  When I got to the part about a single mom’s net worth being only $17,000, she broke down, telling me that her daughter was in just such a predicament.  Three hours later the same woman knocked at our front door, handed me a box of baby formula, and signed a generous cheque to the food bank. 

What changed her mind?  Not my words, for sure.  It was just the sheer numbers, the weight of acquired evidence, that reminded her that millions of women like her actually weren’t really like her at all.  They had little opportunity, precious few resources, limitations on access, and, ironically, little time to pass judgments on others.  They are just trying to survive.

When these women approach us at the food bank, telling us of the massive challenges they face each day, are we destined to just sit there, nod, and remind them that they can always come to us for assistance?  Given the weight of such evidence, is it not our responsibility to permit them to face challenges in their own neighbourhoods, where their children play and go to school, and a broader range of supports are available?

The London Food Bank’s announcement of last week is little less than taking the war on women’s poverty seriously, even calling for community change.  Our city can no longer accept families facing a system-wide poverty when better ways can be researched, discovered, and enabled.

Tony Blair’s response that day should leave us just as speechless.  If we’re serious about poverty, then we’d be better prepare ourselves to fight for a woman’s right to a better world.  They are already in the trenches and we must meet them where they live.

Time to Roar?

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Tonight is an important date for the London, Ontario group Pints and Politics.  The entire occasion centers on one key question Canadians have been asking for decades: Where are all the women in politics?

There were various ways that question could have been put: Why won’t women run? Are there barriers to women entering the political spectrum?  Is it all just a man’s game?  They are all equally valid but the answers have been frustratingly slow in emerging.  Those attending the event tonight will get their chance to add their own perspective.

I was in India when singer Helen Reddy released her chart-topping single I Am Woman.  By the time I arrived back home it had won the Grammy for 1972, became the theme song for the women’s liberation movement, and I recall hearing the first line sung repeatedly in numerous venues – “I am woman, hear me roar.”

A lot has changed since then, as women continue to make their mark in virtually every field, even though the balance for participation remains tilted in favour of their male counterparts.  But it is in the field of politics where we most likely suffer from the lack of equitable female participation.  Currently there are 20 women senators in the U.S. Senate, out of a total of 100.  Sadly, there have only been 44 women in the U.S. Senate since its establishment in 1789.  In Congress, there are 78 women presently serving – only 17.9% of all representatives serving there.

Canada sees 76 women MPs, out of a total of 308.  The Senate – the subject of rife scandal at present – consists of 38 women out of a total of 105.

It is clear that there have been improvements, but perhaps at not a fast enough rate to rescue our political decline.  In fact, Canada remains in 52nd place in the world when it comes to female representation in political office.  That’s not good, but it gets worse when we realize that we are falling farther behind as other countries adopt more aggressive measures to balance out the gender roles.

It is a general rule of thumb that the closer you come to the local community level, the more women you tend to see vying for political office – a reality also true of younger Canadians and minority groups.  And yet even in such constituencies politics remains a harsh game.  Somehow, over the decades, what has always been a man’s game has also turned into a mug’s game, with the respect and collaboration required for democratic progress being laid aside in favour of division, partisanship, and verbal abuse.  Sadly, we sometimes witness women representatives, in an effort to make a mark, adopting similar styles of brinksmanship and caustic comment that turn most women (and many men) off of politics altogether.  Margaret Thatcher’s old adage that, “If you want something said, ask a man.  If you want something done, ask a woman,” is wearing out its welcome, as the political system demands total allegiance, regardless of the gender.

Two of our major challenges in the present age are bad politics and cloistered capitalism.  We have already examined some of the data regarding women in politics, but consider this:  Only 13 of the 500 largest corporations in the world have a female CEO.  On the other hand, women comprise 70% of the poorest people in the world and 65% of the functionally illiterate.  With politics and finance being so out of whack, it’s no wonder modern societies are as well.  Again, there is improvement, but the fundamental question will be if women can rise fast enough in positions of power and influence to rescue us from our own historic oversights?  A second question might be that, if they do manage to reach such a critical mass, will they change the positions they occupy or be changed by them, so that the mockery of politics swallows up all its victims – woman or man?

I have pressed my wife Jane to run for politics because of her obvious experience and ability to work well with others.  “Glen, after I saw what happened to you, why would I even consider it?”  This is the legacy and limitation of modern politics.  Katy Perry is presently singing that she is a champion and we’ll hear her ROAR.  Fair enough, but Helen Reddy said the same thing and the political machine only got worse.

I have always really liked Virginia Woolf’s defiant observation: “Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”  In other words, put any obstacle before a principled woman if you wish, but as a person of character she can rise above any tribal cry or partisan chant.  She might very well prove to be the salvation of politics itself.

It took a woman to say, “Light a candle instead of cursing the darkness” (Eleanor Roosevelt).  It is now time to drive the political darkness back to the shadows of history from which it emerged through the intervention of women who put character, humanity and public service ahead of the darker shades of politics.

Misery and Company

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Few know it, but I cut my teeth on international work four decades ago in Bangladesh.  It was a sobering and humbling experience.  A terrible war, hunger, excessive flooding due to a furious monsoon season, and the ongoing animosities between West Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) made for a toxic brew for the young man I was.  Neither prepared for it nor capable of the level of performance required to truly help a beleaguered people, I nevertheless came to understand that they were devastated when I left – along with me went the hope that the rest of the world had been watching.

Deep stirring and remembrances poured through me in these last few days at the thought of the brutal fire and the eventual collapse of that garment factory in Dkaka that took the lives of some remarkable and beleaguered women and has generated an equivalent firestorm of criticism from international observers targeted at the building owners, the laxity of laws, the lack of governmental will, and even the failure of Western pressure to make the kind of modifications required that could have prevented the tragedy.  Nevertheless, at the centre of it all stands the building owner and the officials and politicians who permitted him to manipulate their purposes to get what he wanted – which wasn’t the safety of the workers.

In these next few months there will be some heavy soul-searching going on.  As Amit Chakma, president of Western University, said recently in a Globe and Mail editorial, something ultimately has to be done about corruption and the application of the rule of law.  And he’s right – the root cause lies in these two issues.

But we must also remember that the women of Bangladesh have gone through a remarkable transformation in recent years.  Despite brutal conditions, women have become empowered by earning wages and taking more leadership in their communities.  The centre of this entire story is that it is really a tale of the remarkable empowerment of women in a country that long denied them such possibilities.  Whatever reforms come from this devastating tragedy, if women aren’t the key focus of the outcomes then the transition required by Bangladesh to move into an era of prosperity and rights will amount to little.

Yet in the middle of all this debate, acrimony, legal wranglings, and perhaps even violence, lies to the devastating stories of the victims.  Look at the picture above and think of what the last few breaths of these individuals must have been like.  This is humanity at its absolute essence.  Facing certain death, they clung to one another and were discovered later in the rubble.  It brought me to tears, repeatedly, and it brought back that awful things I saw in that country all those years ago.  No one seeing this photo can say they aren’t in awe of it, its tragedy its deeply moving pathos.

But that’s just the problem: people like us who are capable of such emotions can just as quickly lose their impact as we move on with our lives.  To change the welfare and future of women in countries like Bangladesh is going to take a different kind of “us” engaging in that process.  This isn’t Survivor or The Walking Dead.  These two labourers, simply working to put food on the table and the kids through school, paid the ultimate price for living in an environment where owners, public servants and politicians alike never put them first.

The moving photo was taken by Bangladeshi photographer Taslima Akhter.  He and his associates have been struggling to find out the names of the two subjects and their relationship to one another – to no avail as of yet.  But in essence we know them because they are just like us, only caught in a cycle of limited possibilities.  We look at their image in deep passion because we picture ourselves in those last few seconds.  What would it be like for us, or if it was our children?  This is humanity at its deepest and most profound, and we know it.  And we pray that when our final moment comes that it will be nothing like this picture.  Fortunately we live in a country, with it codes, laws, community activism and open media, that mitigate against such things occurring often.  But is it right that we have such blessings?  Of course it is.  What’s wrong is that these workers didn’t have access to such essentials for themselves.  And unless we step up and pressure for such changes, even half a world away, then they must make what they can of their own situation and the mighty forces of power and corruption against them.

Author Jay Asher wrote in his, Thirteen Reasons Why, that, “a lot of us care, just not enough.”  That is the moral of this picture, and as a moral people we cannot just remain as observers.  Let’s look at this picture long enough until a fire is lit in our own hearts that will not be extinguished until the struggling men and women of this world enjoy the blessings we sadly take for granted.  By treating morality as an option, we leave the rest of the world at risk. Misery doesn’t deserve such company.

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