When I was growing up in Finland, my dad would often travel for work and return with gifts from abroad. It’s no surprise that one of my favourite words early on became “tuliainen,” or, as I later learned in English - souvenir. Often these souvenirs included new Disney movies, and I quickly fell in love with Beauty and the Beast.
I recently watched it again with a friend, and memories came flying back as I found myself reciting many of the words and songs that had been stored for years somewhere in the back of my brain. There’s a part in the film where Belle, the new girl in the little village, is reading a book when she is rudely interrupted by Gaston:
Belle: “Well some people use their imaginations.”
Gaston: “Belle, it’s about time you got your head out of those books and paid attention to more important things, like me. The whole town’s talking about it, it’s not right for a woman to read. Soon she starts getting ideas…and thinking…”
Finland being consistently rated in the top 5 for gender equality in the world, the thought of women having less value or less opportunities was a foreign concept to me as a child. Watching Belle and Gaston was my first exposure to the idea that women had not always had the same rights as men. As a kid I remember thinking, “why would Gaston say that? What does he mean women shouldn’t think?”
Little did I know how closely the issue of gender inequality was tied to my future work – the fight against sexual exploitation. Prostitution is a manifestation of gender inequality, as the large majority of those selling sex are female (who are often in an economically or socially vulnerable position) and most sex buyers are men (who have relative power due to their ability to pay). While sex buyers always have the option to not engage in prostitution, many of those selling sex do not have that luxury.
Canada’s new prostitution law draws significantly on Sweden’s approach, which recognizes this power imbalance and criminalizes only the purchasers of sex, not those who sell it. The preamble to Canada’s legislation acknowledges the importance of protecting the human dignity and equality of all Canadians, discouraging prostitution “because it has a disproportionate impact on women and children.” Clearly gender equality is somewhat of a value in our country, but are we willing to put our money where our mouth is?
As the 2014 Report of the National Task Force on Sex Trafficking of Women and Girls in Canada points out, Sweden places so much value on gender equality that it has a Ministry of Integration and Gender Equality. This is the governmental body that oversees the sex purchase law. When they first implemented the new legislation, they committed $34.8 million (CAD) over 3 years to fund social programs and awareness campaigns that would help ensure the success of the law. Comparatively, Canada has allotted $30 million (CAD) in a similar attempt.
However, it is worthy to note that the $34.8 million invested by Sweden was only one small piece of a much bigger gender equality policy. Here’s a list of investments the Swedish government has made to bolster gender equality, as highlighted in the Task Force NO MORE Report:
- Over $144M CAD invested between 2007-2010 to educate against violence against women
- $17.6M CAD to promote gender equality in schools, $20M for local and regional gender equality initiatives and $4.48M for grants to promote women’s organizations
- A strategy for gender equality in the labour market, including a three year program to boost women’s entrepreneurship
- Tax policies, including a gender equality bonus to encourage parents to share parental leaves as evenly as possible and tax deductions for household-related services
It’s quite clear that Sweden’s prostitution law was not framed as lone star criminal legislation, but as a piece of a much larger set of robust gender equality policies and practices that reflected national values. These surrounding policies created a healthy environment in which the law could be enforced, lending heavily to its success.
According to the The World Economic Forum 2014 Gender Gap Report, Canada ranks #19 in the world for gender equality. It’s behind Sweden at #5, Switzerland at #11, and South Africa at #18, but ahead of the U.S. at #20 and the U.K. at #26. These rankings are based on the relative gaps between women and men across four key areas: health, education, economy and politics.
The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives points out in their 2014 Striking a Better Balance Report that at the current rate of progress, Canada will not close the gender gap until the year 2240. While the gap between women’s and men’s participation in higher education has closed, the gaps between their earnings and their representation in senior management ranks hasn’t shifted, nor have levels of violence against women decreased.
Some industry experts speculate that women don’t work in these sectors because they don’t want to. Yet a recent survey finds no lack of interest. Rather, women seeking work in the extractive industry identify the same barriers as women in every other industry: a lack of child care, a lack of flexible work practices, and the low levels of women in management positions. (CCAP)
So where does this leave us? Canada’s ranking at #19 demonstrates that on some level, we do value gender equality. This means that pushing our government to make gender equality initiatives more of a priority is not out of the question. But it requires a groundswell of support from everyday, Canadian citizens.
The new prostitution legislation provides a perfect opportunity to have these discussions in a bipartisan context. While the Conservatives were the ones to introduce prostitution bill C-36 in the spirit of equality for all Canadians, they would benefit greatly from working with Liberal, NDP and Green Party representatives toward a broader set of gender equality initiatives, like affordable childcare, pay equity, and affordable housing to name a few. Investing in gender equality, like Sweden has done, will strengthen the prostitution law and help prevent sexual exploitation on a systemic level through providing women with better opportunities.
The government wants to prevent prostitution because it has a disproportionate impact on women. Following this line of thought it can also be said that the government should work to prevent homelessness, poverty, sexual violence and lack of living wage job opportunities, because these also have a disproportionate impact on women. Acknowledging that these issues are connected to prostitution is vital if we are to bring and end to commercial sexual exploitation.
But this is not just the government’s responsibility. It is ours too. Here’s just a few ways we can all contribute to gender equality:
- Ask your MP what their vision is for gender equality, and what they are currently doing to get there
- If you are an employer, provide employees who have children with extra sick days (since they usually use their own when their kids are ill), and pursue pay equity between male and female employees
- Support your local women’s shelter, either financially or by volunteering
- When your kids see movies or commercials that are disrespectful to women, talk it through with them
- Sponsor a single mom: if you know of someone who is struggling to find full time work because they can’t afford child care, offer to help babysit or get friends to pitch in and cover child care for a year
Can you come up with more? My hope is that if we all do our part, we can boost our gender equality ranking up a few notches and traffic-proof our communities!
To learn more about Canada’s prostitution law through my current series:
- Ensuring the Success of Canada’s New Prostitution Law (Introduction)
- Ensuring the Success of Canada’s New Prostitution Law (Part 1: Addressing Poverty)
- Ensuring the Success of Canada’s New Prostitution Law (Part 2: National Inquiry Into Murdered and Missing Aboriginal Girls)