Submission to the Minister of the Status of Women regarding Ontario’s first strategy for the economic empowerment of women
July 25, 2017
YWCA Toronto is the largest multi-service women’s organization in Canada. We have a long and proud history of providing direct services and tackling systemic issues to help women escape violence, move out of poverty, and access safe affordable housing. We also work with young girls - building their leadership and critical thinking skills. Our Association serves over 13,700 people annually in 32 programs across Toronto.
Helping women build strong economic futures is a key focus of our vision, mission and strategic priorities. We have a long history of partnership with the provincial government to deliver employment and training programs, including with our Women’s Employment Centres in Scarborough and Etobicoke; our Women in the Skilled Trades Programs and Moving On To Success (MOTS), an employment program for women who have experienced violence and trauma. We also advocate at all levels of government for strategies to curb the growth of precarious employment and to promote fair employment standards.
We applaud the commitments that have been made thus far by the provincial government to advance gender equity. In particular, we are encouraged by the commitment to a $15 minimum wage in Bill 148; the speed in which the government is implementing its action plan on sexual violence and harassment; the launch of Ontario’s long-term strategy to end violence against Indigenous women; the portable housing benefit pilot to assist women fleeing domestic violence; the universal pharmacare program for children and youth and the commitment to subsidized child care. These changes will make a difference in the lives of the women and girls with whom we work.
Our Association supports the Minster of the Status of Women’s work to develop a government-wide approach to promote women’s economic empowerment. We are proud to be a partner on an upcoming discussion group that will give the Minister and Ministry staff the opportunity to hear directly from women and girls in our Employment and Training programs on what economic empowerment means to them. This submission is intended to compliment that feedback, and it is informed by the life experiences of the thousands of women and girls who use our programs and services every day.
Defining women’s economic empowerment
We agree with the government’s definition of economic empowerment in the discussion paper, which includes:
• Equal access to opportunities and resources in education, and skills development, entrepreneurship and employment
• Institutional environments that promote economic growth and safety for women and girls and remove systemic barriers.
It is also important to recognize that where gender intersects with race, ethnicity, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, citizenship, age and ability, systemic barriers can increase. When drafting this strategy, we urge the government to consult with diverse groups of women – young women, women and girls with disabilities, Indigenous women and girls, LGBTQ2 and gender non-conforming people, newcomers and seniors – to get a sense of the multiple and intersecting barriers that are faced daily. One solution does not fit all.
From your experience in your community, what are the barriers preventing women and girls from pursuing their education, training for career goals?
We agree with all of the barriers listed in the survey, which include:
• Gender-based discrimination at home, work, schools and other aspects of society
• Gender-based violence
• Poverty and income insecurity
• Beliefs and attitudes about women in society
• Family and/or caregiving obligations (e.g. child care, caring for aging or sick parents)
• Pay equity and hiring practices
• Cost or ability to access education (secondary, post-secondary)
• Opportunities for, or access to, women leaders or mentors
• Access to roads, public transportation, rural and remote services and other infrastructure
• Access to safe or affordable housing
Another key barrier is institutional and structural forms of racism and oppression. At YWCA Toronto, 70% of our program participants are from racialized communities. Women tell us about the impact of racism and discrimination when it comes to employment, housing, and in many other areas of daily life. Newcomer women tell us that employers often require “Canadian experience” to qualify for jobs, even though women may have experience in another country. This job market discrimination traps women in low-wage, precarious jobs and limits options for building new lives in Canada. Women tell us that they want to see increased investment in initiatives that will help them enter the labour market, such as Bridge Training Programs, and apprenticeship and skills training opportunities.
Further, our Association’s work has been strongly influenced by the ground-breaking Truth and Reconciliation Commission report. All levels of government must work together to end the inequities facing Indigenous communities – particularly in the areas of child welfare, education, health care and basics like clean water and decent housing. These are all critically important steps towards women’s economic empowerment.
From your experience in your community, what is the biggest barrier preventing women and girls from pursing their education, training or career goals:
Social Assistance Reform – Ontario’s social assistance program does not meet basic needs. The women with whom we work on Ontario Works (OW) and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) are living in extreme poverty – especially single women – and are struggling to survive in an increasingly expensive city. According to a study from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the poverty gap (between total benefit income and the poverty line) for a single person on Ontario Works has nearly tripled, from 20 per cent in 1993 to 59 per cent in 2014. And, as Hugh Segal wrote in his discussion paper for the Basic Income pilot: “It is hard to conclude that the income support that is now available for those living in poverty is adequate in any meaningful way.”
In the lead up to the 2017 Budget, we supported the call from the Income Security Advocacy Centre (ISAC) and the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition to add another billion dollars immediately to enhance social assistance programs. Looking ahead, we are hopeful that the forthcoming report of Ontario’s Income Security Reform Working Group will be one of substance and that it will advance poverty reduction and support women in their efforts to participate in the economy.
Safe, Affordable Housing — Women tell us that the lack of safe affordable housing keeps them trapped in poverty and unable to provide for themselves or their children. In Toronto alone, there are over 98,000 households on the wait list for social housing and Toronto Community Housing is closing units and facing a $2.6-billion backlog in general capital repairs. We urge the provincial government to continue investing in safe, affordable housing and capital repairs to meet the significant need. Women need a continuum of housing supports, including funding for shelters, transitional housing, and permanent housing options – recognizing that women are homeless largely because they are fleeing violence.
A strong focus on poverty reduction is critical to this strategy. Taking action will help to improve the health of low-income women, reduce poverty and the costs of poverty. It will also ensure that all women are able to live in dignity, and with security. In our view, this is the foundation for women’s economic empowerment.
Goals of a strategy to support women’s economic empowerment in Ontario
We support the stated goals of the strategy, which include:
• Encouraging young women to explore and participate in different educational and career streams
• Working with communities across Ontario to improve women’s economic security
• Supporting women’s continued career progression, mentorship and leadership opportunities
• Creating social awareness about gender equity at home, work, in schools and all public institutions, in partnership with all Ontarians.
Empowering Young Women – We are very pleased to see the focus on empowering young women. As you may be aware, YWCA Toronto operates a Girls’ Centre – a safe space for girls and young women aged 9- 18 years of age in Scarborough. In 2016, we served 524 girls and young women – 82% were members of racialized communities. Girls’ Centre programming ranges from promoting media literacy and critical thinking skills, to fostering STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) pursuits. We also have a peer-led Girls’ Council, which provides leadership opportunities and guides program development for girls. Every day, we see strong and capable girls in our programs becoming leaders and working for social change. As part of the development of this strategy, we encourage the provincial government to create on-going funding streams for programming geared specifically at girls and young women.
Poverty Reduction – We would also like to see poverty reduction included as a goal for this strategy. The need remains great and women are still falling behind. According to Ontario Campaign 2000’s 2016 Report Card, one in six (18.8%) children under 18 and one in five (20.4%) children under six in Ontario live in poverty – and we know that women lead many of these families. In Toronto alone, 37% of single women-led families are living in poverty. Poverty destroys lives, limits opportunity and harms families and communities. Therefore, poverty reduction must be a key focus of this strategy.
In conclusion, we congratulate the Minister of the Status of Women for her leadership in moving forward with this strategy. As Premier Kathleen Wynne said during a recent visit to YWCA Toronto, “Government exists to make society as fair as it can be.” We wholeheartedly agree. In this spirit, we urge you to use this strategy as an opportunity to take bold action to support women to move out of poverty and build strong economic futures.