National Post

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Saturday, October 16, 1999

Canadian women envied for privileges
Robert Remington
National Post

CALGARY - While women in Canada struggle for access to corporate boardrooms, Afghani women are forced to wear veils, African societies practise female circumcision and most Carib- bean nations have yet to enact sexual harassment legislation.

The predominantly white, middle-class Canadian women attending an international women's rights conference in Calgary are getting some eye-opening reminders about where they sit in the human rights pecking order, hearing from speakers about violence against women in India, a women's right movement in Eastern Europe still in its infancy and a flourishing tourism sex-trade in the tropics.

"I envy the Canadian woman a great deal," says Margarette Macaulay, chairwoman of the Caribbean Association of Feminist Research and Action. Ms. Macaulay is scheduled to speak today at the conference, titled Global Perspectives on Personhood: Rights and Responsibilities.

It opened Thursday night and marks the 70th anniversary of Canada's Persons Case, a 1929 feminist landmark in which five Alberta women led by suffragette Emily Murphy successfully lobbied the Privy Council in England to overrule a Supreme Court of Canada decision that "persons" as defined in the British North America Act did not include women.

Ms. Macaulay today will outline for delegates a Caribbean society where women cannot get loans without a male guarantor, where a woman's past sexual history is fair game in court cases and where "sexual harassment is rife." Ms. Macaulay even suggests, for the sake of academic argument, that many Caribbean women are worse off today than their slave-trade ancestors.

"During the slave era, women and men were in fact treated and looked upon as equals. They were there as workers, beasts of burden. Men and women were expected to work in the same way and they were also punished in the same way, so they were treated equally. It was later on the inequality of women came to be introduced," she said in an interview.

Ms. Macaulay and other international delegates, including Joyce Piliso-Seroke, head of South Africa's Commission on Gender Equality, say women in their countries look to the Canadian women's rights movement for leadership and inspiration.

"They say, 'if women in Canada and the USA can do it, so can we,'" said Ms. Piliso-Seroke. She has served on South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission and spoke yesterday on issues ranging from rights of women in tribal marriages to the struggle to build a women's rights movement in a society dominated for centuries by a "patriarchal system of cultural sexual bias."

"It's indisputable that Canadian women are among the most privileged in the world," Marilou McPhedran, of the International Women's Rights Centre for Feminist Research at Toronto's York University, told the conference.

She cautioned delegates, however, not to be complacent about women's rights in Canada, especially with respect to aboriginal women. A similar warning was issued Thursday night in a speech by Marie Smallface Marule, president of the aboriginal Red Crow College in Cardston, Alta.

"Single parent mothers who are the most disadvantaged in this country are aboriginal women, and the most impoverish children in this country are aboriginal children," she said.

Ms. McPhedran told delegates of an international networking system to monitor progress on a 20-year-old United Nations convention on womens' rights, saying governments are reluctant to act on the largely toothless proclamation unless embarrassed into doing so.

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