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BC Women’s Employment Inequality Calls for Rights-Based Approach

The CFLS is delighted to present a new series of student-authored blog posts on current feminist legal topics. These opinion, editorial-style posts were written by Allard Hall JD and LLM students as part of the Women, Law & Social Change course in 2016-2017.

In October 2016, British Columbia was held to account for its disappointing women’s rights record at the United Nations in Geneva. “British Columbia does not have a women’s rights focal point,” said UN Committee member, Nahla Haidar, at Canada’s periodic review for compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).[1]

Those who are skeptical about the power of a rights-based approach might see BC’s implementation failure as affirming their position. The ten BC-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that made submissions at Canada’s review would disagree. BC’s pronounced inequality does not reveal the weakness of a rights-based approach; it is the consequence of failing to adopt one.

This week, the BC Liberals held onto their 16-year leadership of the provincial legislature – a period in which multiple regressive policy decisions have adversely impacted BC women. As of 2002, BC is the only Canadian province without a Human Rights Commission.[2] BC has no pay equity law, no employment equity law, and some of the least affordable childcare in Canada.[3] BC has now been without a Human Rights Commission for almost 15 years, meaning that the broad oversight needed to effect structural change has been absent for the same amount of time.[4]

The Commission was formerly tasked with educating the public, inquiring into systemic issues, developing guidelines, and promoting human rights compliance.[5] By asking what systemic obstacles block opportunity for communities, the Commission embodied a rights-based approach.

A rights-based approach turns ‘problems’ into ‘violations’ – the difference being that violations are not inevitable, and do not need to be tolerated.[6]  Rights “change the way people perceive themselves vis-à-vis the government and other actors,” calling power structures into question.[7] In these respects, the approach is transformative – and when it comes to systemic discrimination, transformation is what we need.

Today, BC relies on adjudication of individual complaints, with only the Human Rights Tribunal remaining.[8] The Tribunal provides a forum for discrimination complaints to be heard – but in the context of employment, where gender stereotypes are so embedded and power dynamics so imbalanced, there are many factors that deter complainants from coming forward. To this end, the Ontario Human Rights Commission plainly states, “a lack of complaints does not mean there is no problem to address.”[9]

With a glance at today’s statistics, the problem – the compounded effect of countless human rights violations – becomes apparent.  The Canadian gendered wage gap is twice the global average at 30%.[10] BC women are even further behind, with the gap widening to 35% provincially.[11] From 2000 to 2010, median income of Canadian women rose by 10.6%. BC made only a 4% gain.[12]

The BC Human Rights Code precludes employers from refusing to hire persons because of their gender or family status[13] – but statistics tell us that discrimination is happening at an increasing rate. Discrimination may be unconscious, as “stereotypical assumptions about women’s abilities, interests and priorities… lead even fair-minded, well-intentioned employers to discriminate against women in the workplace”[14].

With no employment equity law or programs, BC employers are not required to scrutinize hiring practices to eliminate discriminatory effects, or to challenge ingrained stereotypes by hiring disadvantaged groups in fields where they are underrepresented.[15] As a result, women are funnelled into low-paying, precarious work. 70% of BC’s minimum-wage workers aged 25-54 are women.[16]

With BC lagging so far behind national averages for women’s employment, it is clear that the state of affairs is not the result of one or two poor policy decisions; it is the result of prolonged power imbalance. The rights-based approach identifies problems as “rooted in differences of power, income and assets”.[17] BC has the highest rate of income inequality in Canada, with average household income of the top 1% growing by 36% in the last 10 years, while that of the median remains unchanged.[18]  With such pronounced inequality, it is imperative that exploitative power relationships be challenged. This can only happen with the involvement and empowerment of those who are most marginalized.[19]

Fortunately, the United Nations did just that – they involved and empowered 22 Canadian NGOs by hearing their submissions at the 2016 CEDAW review. Typically, underfunded NGOs face barriers that limit access to such global institutions while “representatives of private capital generally enjoy unfettered access to the decision-making table”.[20]  With funding from Status of Women Canada, as well as other research grants, the voices of marginalized Canadians were heard.

During the review, the BC CEDAW Group was pleased to hear the Committee press Canada on provincial issues of single mothers’ poverty and sub-par human rights enforcement. Canada’s federal structure was also addressed. “In treaty obligations, the obligation rests with the state party regardless of the constitutional order of the state” said the Committee. The Committee proceeded to ask for “a national strategy to address the structural factors leading to persistent inequality,” pointing to use of federal spending power to “speed up [provincial] inability to implement.”[21]

Adoption of a rights-based approach brought Canadian NGOs to the table, but now we need action at home. “International conventions establish rights as universal, but give little guidance on translating the universal into local realities,” said Oxfam in a report on rights-based development.[22] This concern was borne out following the last CEDAW review in 2008, when the Harper administration simply ignored most of the Committee’s recommendations.[23] This time around, NGOs hope that the feds take heed.

“We have a Prime Minister who repeatedly reaffirms his commitment to gender equality – so structurally, we are in a good place,” assured Linda Savoie, Senior Director at Status of Women Canada.[24] NGOs are cautiously optimistic, urging the BC Liberals to implement the CEDAW Committee’s 2016 recommendations. “We know the conclusions of this Committee have the power to ignite political will,” said the BC CEDAW Group.[25] For the sake of all Canadian women, let’s hope they are right.

Carly Stanhope is a JD student at the Peter A. Allard School of Law and the research assistant to the BC CEDAW Group.


[1] CEDAW, 65th Sess, 1433rd Mtg, UN Doc CEDAW/C/SR.1433 (25 October 2016).

[2] BC CEDAW Group. 2016. Women’s Rights in British Columbia: Submission to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women on the occasion of its consideration of Canada’s combined eighth and ninth periodic reports at its sixty-fifth session.

[3] Ibid.

[4] BC CEDAW Group, supra note 2 at 1.

[5] Day, Shelagh and Gwen Brodsky. 2014. Strengthening Human Rights: Why British Columbia Needs A Human Rights Commission.

[6] Oxfam America. 2001. Challenges And Opportunities Of Implementing A Rights-Based Approach To Development: An Oxfam America Perspective.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ontario Human Rights Commission. 2008. Human Rights At Work.

[10] Feminist Alliance for International Action. 2016. Reply To Issues 3, 4, 7, 8, 11, 12 & 13: Report To The Committee On The Elimination Of Discrimination Against Women On The Occasion Of The Committee’S Eighth And Ninth Periodic Review Of Canada.

[11] Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – BC Office. 2012. BC Disadvantage For Women – Earnings Compared With Other Women In Canada.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Human Rights Code, RSBC 1996, c 210, s 13(1).

[14] Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund. 2016. Closing The Gender Wage Gap.

[15] BC CEDAW Group, supra note 2 at 7.

[16] West Coast LEAF and Coalition of Childcare Advocates of BC. 2016. A Cornerstone Of Equality For Canadian Women: The Essential Role Of Child Care In All Articles Of The Convention On The Elimination Of All Forms Of Discrimination Against Women.

[17] Chapman, Jennifer, Valerie Miller, Adriano Campolina Soares, and John Samuel. 2005. Rights-Based Development: The Challenge Of Change And Power.

[18] BC Poverty Reduction Coalition. 2016. Factsheet On Poverty and Inequality In BC.

[19] Chapman et al, supra note 17 at 5.

[20] Oxfam America, supra note 4 at 16.

[21] CEDAW, supra note 1.

[22] Oxfam America, supra note 4 at 19.

[23] BC CEDAW Group, supra note 2 at 4, 9.

[24] CEDAW, supra note 1.

[25] BC CEDAW Group. 2016. “Women’s Rights in BC”. Presentation, United Nations Headquarters, Geneva.


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Rape Culture at the International Criminal Court: A Call for Accountability in Cases of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence

The CFLS is delighted to present a new series of student-authored blog posts on current feminist legal topics. These opinion, editorial-style posts were written by Allard Hall JD and LLM students as part of the Women, Law & Social Change course in 2016-2017.

Rape culture accepts sexual violence as a fact of life, when in reality much of what we excuse as inevitable is the expression of values and attitudes that can change. Despite a host of progressive, feminist-inspired law reforms, misguided attitudes toward sexual assault are prevalent in Canadian courts, where decisions have repeatedly come under fire for being informed by myths and stereotypes. But attitudes toward gendered crimes do not confine themselves to state borders nor submit to the optimism of advocates for global justice. At the International Criminal Court (ICC), prosecutors, judges and witnesses hold implicit biases that not only affect decision-making in cases of conflict-related sexual violence, but also influence which cases are afforded their day in court to begin with.

On 16 September 2016, Nadia Murad Basee Taha was appointed United Nations Goodwill Ambassador. When militants captured the city of Sinjar, Iraq in August 2014, Nadia was captured, sold and subjected to grave abuses, while her elderly mother and male family members were murdered as part of the ongoing campaign of genocide against the minority Yazidis perpetrated by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL; also known as ISIS). Nadia escaped, but thousands of women and girls remain enslaved in ISIL strongholds where girls as young as 9 years old are being bought and sold in slave markets at this very moment.

In a speech to the United Nations in December 2016, Nadia implored the international community to act in response to the ongoing genocide of her people. Yet to this day not one member of ISIL has been held accountable at an international court or tribunal for crimes against Yazidis. When it comes to prosecuting conflict-related sexual violence, accountability is the exception; impunity the rule. Despite the explicit classification of conflict-related sexual violence as a war crime and crime against humanity in international law, the ICC continues to mischaracterize, overlook and under-prioritize conflict-related sexual violence. The pervasive myth that conflict-related sexual violence is ‘opportunistic’ and isolated from the broader conflict is a gross mischaracterization of how militant groups such as ISIL strategically utilize sexual violence as a weapon of war.

While entire communities suffer the consequences war, women and girls are particularly affected due to the prevalence of gendered crimes. Reports from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) explain that sexual violence  “… [was] particularly tailored to [the] goals of driving women from their homes or destroying their possibility of reproducing within and ‘for’ their community.” When innocent women like Nadia stand in the face of genocide, their suffering is no longer confined to the consequences of war. Their bodies become the battlefield itself.

Supposing that conflict-related sexual violence is more about sex and less about violence allows for a second myth, that gathering evidence for these crimes takes ‘extra’ work. The misguided belief that sexual violence is not a core crime makes it difficult to justify allocating the necessary resources to gather witnesses, military records, and other key evidence. But do cases of sexual violence really pose any additional challenge compared with other international crimes?  Maxine Marcus, an experienced investigator and prosecutor of international crimes, says not. She argues instead that sexual violence is neglected by international jurisdictions because investigators and prosecutors shy away from sexual evidence.

This was certainly the case at the Nuremberg trials, where the subject was considered “too distasteful” to prosecute. Fifty years later, interviews with judges, prosecutors, and other parties at the ICTY revealed that many of them accepted rape myths, held misogynistic views about women, and felt ambivalent and uncomfortable when dealing with cases of sexual violence. In response to the lack of accountability, one prosecutor confessed, “I get embarrassed asking questions to rape victims”.

Surely sexual violence is a difficult topic to speak about, but that is no excuse not to hold perpetrators to account. If global justice is to be realized, the trend of applying inconsistent approaches to sexual violence as compared to other crime categories must end. This calls for a reasonable allocation of resources, which will only be possible if prosecution offices change their mentality toward conflict-related sexual violence and begin to perceive it as a core crime.

Of course the reluctance to prosecute conflict-related sexual violence is not entirely unreasonable, especially given the difficulties of successfully prosecuting any crime at the ICC. In addition to the overarching challenge of confronting myths and stereotypes about sexual violence, each case presents its own complexities. In the cases of ISIL, there is the issue of jurisdiction. Since neither Iraq nor Syria have signed on to the Rome Statute, a case against top ISIL members would require the support of the United Nations Security Council, which presents its own political hurdles. However, the challenges associated with such cases are not insurmountable and are in fact comparable to those faced by other war crimes, which are readily prosecuted at the ICC.

The international community must be vigilant to ensure that impunity for gendered crimes does not continue to be the norm. As a starting point, the working group of the ICTY suggests prosecuting gendered crimes under the general categories of torture, enslavement, and genocide to contextualize them in the broader conflict. Other improvements would include assigning senior staff to advocate on gendered issues and employing diverse investigative teams to reach out to witnesses. Finally, the international legal community must be sensitive to the needs of survivors and answer the call of victims like Nadia, who are not helpless, but rather courageous enough to call on us for help. We too must be courageous and ensure their cries do not continue to go unanswered.

Rochelle Kelava is a JD student at the Peter A. Allard School of Law and the Centre for Feminist Legal Studies’ Student Coordinator for 2016-2017.

Sources – Academic

Serge Brammertz and Michelle Jarvis, eds, Prosecuting Conflict-Related Sexual Violence at the ICTY (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

Doris Buss, “Women at the Borders: Rape and Nationalism in International Law” (1998) 6:2 Feminist Legal Studies 171.

Doris Buss, “Performing Legal Order: Some Feminist Thoughts On International Criminal Law” (2011) 11 International Criminal Law Review: Special Issue on Women & International Criminal Law 409.

Doris Buss, “Knowing women: Translating Patriarchy in International Criminal Law” (2014) 23:1 Social & Legal Studies 73.

Christine Chinkin, “Gender-Related Crimes: A Feminist Perspective” in Ramesh Thakur and Peter Malcontent (eds), From Sovereign Impunity to International Accountability: The Search for Justice in a World of States (United Nations University, Press, 2004) 116.

Anne-Marie de Brouwer, “The Importance of Understanding Sexual Violence in Conflict for Investigation and Prosecution Purposes” (2015) 48 Cornell International Law Journal 662.

Margaret M. DeGuzman, “Giving Priority to Sex Crime Prosecutions at International Courts: The Philosophical Foundations of a Feminist Agenda” (2011) 11 International Criminal Law Review 515.

Margaret M. DeGuzman, “An Expressive Rationale for the Thematic Prosecution of Sex Crimes”, in Thematic Prosecution of International Sex Crimes, Morten Bergsmo, ed. (Torkel Opsahl Academic EPublisher, 2012).

Dakshita Sangwan, “Sexual Offences in International Law” (2012-2013) 12:13 ISIL Year Book of International Humanitarian and Refugee Law 259.

Sources – Reports and UN Documents

ISIS Escapees Describe Systematic Rape: Yezidi Survivors in Need of Urgent Care, Human Rights Watch, 2015.

ISIS is Committing Genocide Against Yazidis, UNOHCHR, 2016.

 Report on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict in Iraq: 6 July – 10 September 2014, UNOHCHR, 2015, at 12-16.

 Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Human Rights Situation in Iraq in the light of Abuses Committed by the So-Called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and Associated Groups, UNOHCHR, 2015, at 16-49.

Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, 12 August 1949, 75 UNTS 287.

Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and Relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts, 8 June 1977, 1125 UNTS 3.

Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and Relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts, 8 June 1977, 1125 UNTS 609.

Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, 17 July 1998, 2187 UNTS 3, arts 7(1)(g), 8(2)(b)(xxii)-(e)(vi) (entered into force 1 July 2002).

Women Peace and Security, SC Res 2106, UNSC, 6984th session, UN Doc E/13-37215, 24 June 2013, at para 2; and Women Peace and Security, SC Res 1820, UNSC, 5916th session, UN Doc E/08-39144 19 June 2008.


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