I call this meeting to order.
Good morning, everyone.
I'd like to welcome everyone here this morning.
Today is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. It's very apt that we're doing this study on women today.
This is the 20th meeting of the Subcommittee on International Human Rights. We are meeting today in a hybrid format, pursuant to the order of June 23, 2022. We're meeting both here in person and on Zoom.
For those attending via Zoom who are new to the committee, you have interpretation through the globe icon at the bottom of your screen. I would ask that you wait until you're recognized. When you give your opening remarks, I'll give you a hand signal when you have one minute left. I will raise my hand at one minute and then at 30 seconds. Then I'll lean in and allow you to conclude your five minutes.
Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2) and the motion adopted on Friday, September 23, 2022, we will commence our study on the rights and freedoms of women globally and on women in Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
We have with us in this first panel three esteemed witnesses. From the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, we have Jacqueline O'Neill, the ambassador for women, peace and security. She is here in person and will be testifying first.
From Human Rights Watch, we have Farida Deif, Canada director. She is joining us by video conference.
Also by video conference, we have Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini, founder and chief executive officer of the International Civil Society Action Network.
Without further ado, Ms. O'Neill, you may please proceed.
Thanks to the committee for initiating this very important study.
To be a woman fighting for rights and peace has never been risk-free. I'll never forget, about 15 years ago, a Kenyan politician telling me that when she went to campaign events, she wore two pairs of very tight jeans to prevent thugs associated with the opposition party from raping her at her own campaign events. As well, a Colombian woman told me just a few years ago that she refused an award from her own government for brokering a peace deal, because she knew that the recognition could lead to credible death threats to her family.
Now we have data showing that the risks facing women human rights defenders and peacebuilders are increasing. Last month, the UN Secretary-General reported that they “have increasingly been targeted with attacks that silence their advocacy and prevent them from participating in public life.” He said that with respect to women's rights, “we are going backwards” and are “experiencing a reversal of generational gains”.
Afghanistan is without a doubt an extreme example, where the Taliban is trying to completely erase women from public life. It’s an approach that many activists have described as gender apartheid.
We’ve witnessed attacks against peaceful protesters in Iran, Sudan and Myanmar, where the army has killed hundreds of protesters.
We have also witnessed sexual violence linked to conflicts in Ethiopia and Haiti, as well as in the context of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine.
Indigenous women fighting for the climate have been murdered.
Dangerous disinformation campaigns target human rights defenders as well as women fighting for peace.
Why are we seeing these trends?
One of the main reasons relates to attacks on democracy. In general, authoritarianism and misogyny mutually reinforce each other. Authoritarian leaders often perceive women who defend human rights and peace as a direct threat to their power. It is therefore in those leaders’ interest to silence these women.
The government of Canada reacts in various ways. I will briefly describe only five of them, but it would be my pleasure to discuss them further during our conversation.
First, our starting assumption is that women human rights defenders and peacebuilders face significant risks because of their work. Particularly when they seek funding, the burden should not be on them to prove that their work can be dangerous. Our programming support to women peacebuilders now includes specific funding related to safety, recognizing they must sometimes buy locks or surveillance cameras for their offices or undertake digital security training.
Also, with civil society's input, we develop the “Voices at Risk” guidelines to give practical advice to Canadian diplomats to support human rights defenders.
Second, we’re trying to obtain more funding for feminist organizations fighting the erosion of women’s rights.
We have made significant investments, but we know that it is not enough. We must try to increase the quantity of resources, increase flexibility and improve accessibility.
Third, we're determined to listen to women human rights defenders and peacebuilders themselves to understand the changing nature of the threats they're facing. For example, they tell us that they're often the subject of online abuse and threats, and we're learning that these threats made against women online are more likely than threats against men to translate into physical violence.
In Moldova, just a couple of weeks ago, I asked a journalist about threats made against her and her peers. She explained that she and her team of four journalists had recently completed a study, an investigation, on corruption within the government. All four of them received death threats, and two women on the team had their photos and contact information posted across dozens of prostitution-related websites.
Dialogue with Canada-based diaspora refugees and women human rights defenders and peacebuilders has also been essential to understand their unique needs while here in Canada. For example, some have shared that unlike many other refugees, they prefer not to be located in areas with significant diaspora populations from their home countries because that can increase their vulnerabilities. Some have also raised the need for greater collaboration and coordination among federal partners.
Fourth, Canada is making an effort to increase this essential work’s visibility, which is increasingly under threat. We are trying to raise awareness about it, for example during speeches and statements.
Fifth, we are proactively creating coalitions and networks, some official and some not, to correct the false narrative that gender equality is a Western idea.
To save time, I’ll stop here. I’m happy to answer your questions.
Thank you, Mr. Chairperson and honourable members of Parliament, for inviting me to appear before this subcommittee.
I'll start my remarks today by addressing Afghanistan, a situation that is devastatingly grim, especially for women and girls. Severe food insecurity, an economic crisis and human rights abuses targeting women and girls have brought the country to the brink of humanitarian collapse, eroding decades of development and gender equality.
Over the past 15 months, the Taliban have effectively removed women from public life. They imposed a de facto ban on girls' secondary education and banned women from most forms of employment. A May order requires women to cover their faces whenever they're in public and leave home only when necessary, and imposes punishment for non-compliance on male family members, essentially compelling men to become the enforcers of Taliban rule on their own female relatives.
The Taliban dismantled the system to respond to gender-based violence, created new barriers for women accessing health care, blocked women aide workers from doing their jobs and attacked women's rights protesters with impunity.
Thus far, the international response to this crisis has been deeply inadequate. While many countries have issued statements, expressed deep concern and called on the Taliban to end the rights violations, concrete coordinated practical actions have been few and far between. We expect countries, especially those that have a feminist foreign policy like Canada, to be much more active in opposing Taliban violations. We ask these governments to coordinate closely with each other, use all mechanisms and measures at their disposal, including sanctions against Taliban leaders, and make the rights of Afghan women and girls a major priority in their foreign policy.
Turning to Saudi Arabia, it's clear that the kingdom is not progressing on human rights, despite promised reforms. The space for dissent has significantly shrunk, and new legislation has codified the abusive male guardianship of women, which essentially renders them permanent legal minors. In many ways, Saudi Arabia has become even more repressive.
A case in point, in August, a Saudi appeals court dramatically increased the prison sentence of Salma al-Shehab, a doctoral student, from six to 34 years, based solely on her Twitter activity. The sentence is believed to be the longest ever imposed on a Saudi woman for her peaceful online expression.
Another example of these hollow reforms is when Saudi authorities released three prominent women's rights activists from prison last year. They were previously arrested for publicly supporting the very reforms Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman says he's seeking to promote. While they're no longer behind bars, they remain banned from travel and are serving suspended sentences, allowing the authorities to return them to prison for any perceived criminal activity.
Saudi authorities clearly feel empowered to continue to crush dissent, and Saudi women are among their primary targets. Canada should ensure that it promptly and publicly condemns these actions, rulings and decisions, which further shrink the public space and target Saudi women.
And finally, there's Iran. Protests that started following the death in September of a young Kurdish-Iranian woman in the custody of the abusive morality police—
While protests began as a response to Mahsa Amini's death and the oppressive hijab laws, they've transformed into broad-based grievances against repressive, unrepresentative and corrupt ruling authorities.
Iranian authorities have ruthlessly cracked down on these protests with excessive and lethal force. We should remember that one month before Mahsa's death, on August 15, a new presidential decree sanctioned women for showing their hair on social media, with female government employees facing dismissal from their jobs if they have profile pictures without their hijabs. The head of the morality police also announced plans to enforce dress codes through digital surveillance of public spaces.
Canada has shown strong leadership in response to the Iran crisis. Just yesterday, Canada supported a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council establishing a fact-finding mission with a mandate to investigate alleged human rights violations related to these protests. The government has also imposed a series of widespread targeted sanctions on Iranian officials. While we support Human Rights Watch measures like targeted sanctions on those responsible for serious human rights violations, we actively encourage states like Canada to do their due diligence. For anything beyond individual designations, we encourage Canada to consult with experts and those who can help assess the potential unintended harm on civil society.
Thank you very much.
Good morning. Thank you for this opportunity.
First, they closed the schools. Then they stopped women from going to work. Then they came to put the ban on women going to parks. The latest news from Afghanistan is that women aren’t allowed to buy SIM cards. This is the Afghanistan of 2022.
Could the Taliban takeover have been prevented at the negotiations in Doha? The answer to that question is to ask you, if Afghan women peacebuilders and activists, women's youth delegations and representatives from minorities had been present as delegations in those talks, would the outcomes have been the same? Would Mr. Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy, have been able to agree to the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners even as the Taliban was bombing maternity clinics and schools?
Ladies and gentlemen, good morning, and thank you for this opportunity to speak to you.
My name is Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini. I am the founder and CEO of ICAN. We specialize in the practice of inclusive and gender-responsive peacemaking and the prevention of violent extremism. We spearhead the Women’s Alliance for Security Leadership, WASL, which is an alliance of locally rooted, globally connected, independent women-led peacebuilding organizations in 40 countries affected by fragility, violence and closing political space.
We're grateful to the Government of Canada for its support to us, including for ICAN's innovative peace fund and She Builds Peace campaign, which to date have disbursed $6.9 million to over 60 organizations in 31 countries, with grants ranging from $200 to $100,000.
I share this with you because the work that is happening on the ground at the front lines of countries affected by conflict and violence is often invisible. It is the work of women. It is not behind the headlines. They are ahead of the headlines.
The work that we at ICAN have done over the last few years is to provide the bridge between those local activists and the international community, and we couldn't have it done it without your help.
That said, the situation on the ground is bleak, and we have to be very sober about what we're facing. As 2022 draws to a close, women peacebuilders are finding themselves in the centre of a complex web of intersecting and escalating crises.
As we celebrate and draw attention to the women of Iran—and as an Iranian by heritage, I find it extremely moving to see how the world is supporting the women of Iran—I'm struck by how the Afghan women are still left behind. As we watch what is happening in Ukraine and provide the humanitarian support needed to Ukraine, my colleagues in Yemen, Syria and elsewhere, where wars have continued to be waged, are still struggling.
The Ukraine war and the shifting of finances and attention are impacting women in other places and in other contexts. We cannot forget them. We cannot forget that there's a world beyond our own borders and beyond our own regional interests.
In terms of the information I want to share with you today, I want to focus on what women peacebuilders in my network are saying now about the issues they're facing—the conflict, the crises, the climate change crises, things like floods and so forth, and their experiences from COVID.
What we saw happen during the COVID crisis was that the world forgot the people at the front lines of war and fragility. When the WHO issued orders to wash our hands with soap and water, my colleagues in Cameroon, Somalia and Yemen were saying, “We don't have soap, and we don't have water.”
What we saw happen was women become self-reliant. They shared information across our WhatsApp groups about how to make soap from natural products and how to make hand sanitizers. We shared information from the ICAN side about what was coming from the American CDC and elsewhere. What we realized is that the global solidarity and connectivity, the ecosystem we have, is essential for the work and survival of women peacebuilders and the communities they're helping out there.
We also saw that it is women peacebuilders who draw on the reserve of trust that they have in their communities to actually provide services. So, when we talk about the triple nexus of humanitarian, development and peacebuilding support, it's women on the ground who are doing that. Peacebuilding these days cannot be done if you're struggling to have water or if you're dealing with a drought or a flood. These things go together, and the women at the front lines are actually delivering these services.
They are, as my colleague Ambassador O'Neill mentioned, at incredible risk. It is lonely work. Peace work is not easy. In polarized societies, when communities are polarized, whether online or in real life, to be the bridge, to try to be the interlocutors, to try to find a mediated space in the middle, means that your life is at risk and that your family is often at risk.
We're seeing more and more how women are doing their advocacy through public campaigns. Through our She Builds Peace campaign, which Canada, again, has been supporting, we are reaching deep into societies and we're making the idea of being an activist for peace, equality and pluralism—recognition for peace work—something that many ordinary people want to participate in, young people especially.
At a time when the world is having so many difficulties, when the UN is struggling to raise the money for the humanitarian emergencies it already has and can't even raise a quarter of what it needs, these women and the activists on the ground who are running to protect their communities, who are running to take on the responsibility to protect, they are the actors who are there doing so non-violently. They are essential, and we need to support them. We need to foster the ecosystem. None of us can do this alone.
It is with this message I want to come to you: to ensure that the activists who are risking their lives are getting the support they need and that Canada and other countries are practising their own values by making sure that you are taking a gendered, responsive approach.
I want to thank our witnesses for being here today.
One of the things I'm interested in knowing about—and I have my intuition on this, but something tangible would be helpful, and all of your organizations have probably done work in this area—are the trend lines on some of these things. It feels to me like it's all getting worse. I was wondering if you can point us to a particular article, a particular study, and probably to work you are doing that gives us a trend line.
Is there a bright spot in the world? It feels like everywhere it's getting worse. I follow a lot of the religious freedom indexes from around the world. They note that out of 200 countries, everywhere either has stayed the same or has gotten worse. Out of 200 countries, there isn't improvement.
I'll start with the Human Rights Watch Canada organization. Could you give us bit of a sense of the trend lines on the work you do?
We know from studies that have been done that today only 3% of the world's population lives in countries with open conditions for civil society action and that generally global peacefulness has been declining for 11 of the past 14 years. That is a trend line that comes from the annual terrorism study and so forth.
I want to echo my colleague from Human Rights Watch about the double standards that we see. We don't criticize what's happening in Saudi Arabia or what is happening by Israeli activism in Palestine, but we do criticize countries that are not necessarily allies of the West, or we ignore countries like India and what is happening there right now in terms of the Muslim population. There are severe early warning signs.
The question is, what is the leverage that countries like Canada have? What we've seen in the case of Iran, Syria and elsewhere is that the blanket sanctions that affect a large swath of the population embolden the hardliners and have a tremendously detrimental impact on civil society and ordinary civilians. We need to make sure that we're not doing harm, that we're not adding harm.
Targeted sanctions, like the ones you've just introduced in the case of Iran, are much better in terms of ensuring that the public hears what you're against and what you're for.
We've done a lot of harm to the Syrian population and to the Iranian population with past blanket sanctions, and it's very hard to undo that kind of harm.
I'm happy to answer more.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
I think it's very noteworthy that we're meeting here today at the beginning of the 16 days of activism against violence against women.
I'd like to address my first question to Ambassador O'Neill.
I was glad to see that you, in your remarks, equated the decline and backsliding and threats to democracy with the increasing violence and threats against women. We're seeing right now that the polarization is no longer left and right. It is between authoritarianism or tyranny and democracy, and along with that the values of democracy, including gender equality, pluralism and diversity.
What I'd like to ask you is a little bit about that, about the fact that right now we're seeing a perfect storm between COVID-19, climate emergencies and increasing conflict, which is really causing the women of the world to be the ones suffering the most. At the same time, we're seeing an increase in gender conservatism. That's not just happening in authoritarian countries. We see it south of the border in the rollback of important hard-fought rights of women over their own bodies.
In this context, could you tell us a little bit about the need for global networks? How important is it that when women's voices are being silenced in one country, women in other countries are able to amplify and draw attention, and in so doing provide safety for those who are on the ground fighting?
The other question I have comes from our previous study in a previous Parliament in this committee on women human rights defenders. One of our recommendations at that time was that Canada create a human rights defenders immigration stream, because what we were hearing was that when things go bad, they go bad quickly.
Yesterday I was at a Dignity Network event, where I heard from a transgender woman living in a country where the legal structures are not helpful. She said that when it happens, she needs to get out in three hours. But they don't want to leave. It's not immigration. They're not refugees. These people want to return, want to keep fighting for their country. They just need temporary asylum, to be able to get out when it's hot, and then be able to go back when it's safer.
After that, the Government of Canada did create a human rights defenders stream of 250. I think we all agree we need more than that.
Would you give some advice about how we could tailor that so that it is more rapid and so that it is more reflective of the realities of human rights defenders on the ground?
Also, maybe elaborate a bit on how Canada could more readily foster global networks, even among parliamentarians, that would allow us to be able to amplify the voices and make sure that the women who are really fighting on the front lines are fully supported by the international community.
One reason that this study.... I'm so happy that this committee has taken this up. We have to recognize that these attacks on gender equality and on women's rights are not haphazard. To the previous member's question about data and trends, there are absolute trends and there is an absolutely concerted and organized opposition to women's rights. We have to be as organized, concerted and strategic as those who are opposing us. I think we have to do that in a number of different ways.
To dial back to the start of your question related to democracy and authoritarianism, and maybe to the previous member's question, one of the key indices that we have to look at is the repression and the silencing of voices. The voices of women in civil society tend to be the first to be silenced.
We're seeing what some have called an epidemic of coups around the world. Often, they are military takeovers of government and again...deep forms of suppression. I don't have the numbers in front of me, but whereas we'd seen a handful in the previous 20 or 30 years, we're now seeing three or four times the number of coups in countries. We're seeing really dramatic declines on those fronts.
We're also seeing very intentional attacks on gender equality by countries that are working together—Russia and China in particular. They're doing this at institutional levels. At the United Nations, the Organization of Security and Co-operation in Europe and the African Union, for example, we're seeing countries deliberately and often subtly try to roll back gains that we've achieved. A colleague of mine said that we used to be pushing a boulder up the hill, but now we're just trying to keep the boulder in place.
For things like the rights of civil society and for women activists to address the forums directly—to hear from them, as opposed to just through government representatives—or recognizing the role of civil society in partnering with government, we're getting subtle rollback on these at an institutional level. The networks that you mentioned are exceptionally important so that we can identify these tactics, anticipate them and work against them.
That happens also at an individual level. You referenced that the pandemic has really been exacerbating these problems. First of all, as you all know very well, people couldn't meet in person. They had to take a lot of their work online. That created massive opportunities for state surveillance of human rights activists and organizers. Again, we need to think about networks and being able to provide security for people differently.
I really commend the committee and the work of committees in doing things like recommending a dedicated stream for human rights defenders, which, as you know, translated into very specific action. We're really proud that we have that and we want to keep growing that.
As we mentioned, there are very specific needs that we understand by listening to activists. Many human rights defenders and women peacebuilders say they're not seeking permanent status. They need to be able to escape while they manage the risks and then their ultimate goal, of course, is to go back. That's not their barrier to begin with.
As I mentioned, some people say that they don't want to go to a place where there's a concentration of people from their own country because they have to lay low, so it exposes them to different risks. They might have different needs for supports.
We have to be collecting gender disaggregated data on all of these applications and resettlements to make sure that women and men equally understand the opportunities that face them. The 250 number, of course, includes family members, so that adds up very quickly.
I thank all three of you for being with us today for this important study.
I will go relatively quickly. I was the Deputy Chair of the Special Committee on Afghanistan, so I will start with the situation in that country.
Many Canadian NGOs came to see me, often privately, to tell me that the Canadian Criminal Code was preventing them from doing their work in Afghanistan. The United Nations Security Council passed resolution 2615, but Canada never followed. In July, everyone said they agreed, including and . In September, we were told that changes were coming.
To date, Ms. O’Neill, have you seen a change in the Canadian Criminal Code pertaining to NGOs?
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Thank you to our witnesses. My goodness, what an interesting panel, as everyone has mentioned, on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
Ms. Naraghi-Anderlini, I know the other two witnesses very well and consider them leaders in this work, and your testimony has been such that I'm certainly adding you to that list of powerhouse women who are fighting for women's rights around the world. I thank you all very much for doing that.
I want to follow up a little bit, very briefly, on what my colleague from the Bloc brought up. We do look at the fact that Canada cannot work in Afghanistan the way that we should because we don't have that humanitarian carve-out. There are implications on that. One of my big worries is that if we are not careful, if we are not thoughtful, and I guess looking down the road with regard to Iran.... Is there the potential that if we were to, for example, declare the IRGC a terrorist organization, that would give us the same implications in Iran that groups would not be able to work with civil society in Iran? That would limit what Canada can do because we don't have that humanitarian carve-out in our Criminal Code.
Mr. Naraghi-Anderlini, could I ask you?
The sanctions in Iran are so profound right now, and the crackdown from the state systematically, that the idea of civil society organizations per se is itself very different. That said, absolutely, carve-outs for humanitarian, civic action, etc., should be there. Carve-outs for ordinary people to send stipends to their family members should be there.
It is almost impossible to try to get resources to ordinary people, including, by the way, to Afghans who are passing through, because what we're seeing is that Afghans, for example, in our network, get verified by Germany, but they need to come to Iran or Pakistan to get their visas at the embassies there. It's really important to have the means and the measures for people to be able to pass through, and the embassy presence and so forth is also very critical for other reasons.
Humanitarian carve-outs are absolutely critical. We can't get money for charities for kids with cancer or orphans, things like that, each time. It's meant to be possible, but it's been very hard.
There are a few different things.
One, we can learn from other countries on how they are approaching this as it relates to programming. I mentioned that we've included now budget lines for digital security for women peacebuilders we're supporting. I think we can continue to share and learn from other countries on how they're doing that better.
We have been working within different forums. For example, the Organization of American States now has a cybersecurity program, and Canada funded a free online course on cybersecurity and gender, so we're working within various multilateral institutions to try to raise the fact and keep the attention and focus on women. We have a women and cyber fellowship, a few different things.
We also just joined—and I think this is an area for increased attention, including hopefully at a parliamentary level as well—something called the global partnership for action on gender-based online abuse and harassment. That's recognition that we have to work internationally to identify standards and good practices.
We also have a massive dearth of research in this area about what actually works, what works vis-à-vis IT companies, tech companies and what role they have to play, what role legislation has to play, and then specifically what governments can do.
I call the meeting back to order.
Welcome, everyone, to the second panel on this International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Welcome to our study on women, in particular women in Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the rights and freedoms of women globally.
I'd like to thank the witnesses for being here.
With us in person, we have Julia Tétrault-Provencher, legal advisor with Lawyers without Borders Canada.
Remotely, from Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, we have Meghan Doherty, who is the director of global policy and advocacy. As an individual, we have Maître Sayeh Hassan.
Thank you both for joining virtually.
We're going to start now for five minutes with Maître Tétrault-Provencher.
Esteemed members of the Subcommittee on International Human Rights of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development, let me begin by thanking you, on behalf of Lawyers without Borders Canada, or LWBC, for your interest in the rights and freedoms of women and girls around the world.
LWBC is a non-governmental international cooperation organization that, for the past 20 years, has contributed to the implementation of human rights for women and girls by strengthening access to justice and legal representation.
A number of our projects funded by Global Affairs Canada are in fact designed to fight gender-based violence, which we call GBV, to promote and protect the sexual and reproductive rights of women and girls, and to protect human rights defenders.
In the countries where LWBC is active, that is, in Colombia, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Mali, Benin, Burkina Faso and the Democratic Republic of Congo, our work with human rights defence organizations has enabled us to identify certain trends which appear to be quite widespread, bearing in mind the different contexts. I would like to address five of those trends here in the time available to me.
First, discriminatory socio-cultural standards, practices and beliefs represent considerable obstacles to access to justice for women and girls. Women and girls must be able to access effective legal services and receive multisectoral assistance suited to their needs. For example, LWBC and its partners have strengthened legal assistance and legal aid services in Mali, providing support that is sensitive to the realities of women and girls who are the victims of GBV. More than 80 women who were victims of the conflict have received legal representation before national and international bodies.
Secondly, the erosion of civic and democratic space and the rise of various forms of extremism significantly undermine the work of civil society organizations, which can no longer defend and promote the rights of women and girls. We have witnessed three types of attacks on human rights defenders: the criminalization of their activities; threats and attacks on their physical integrity and lives; and defamation and public attacks. These attacks disproportionately affect women who defend human rights.
Third, women and girls are too often excluded from decision-making circles, and their specific experiences are not considered. Yet we have found that, to ensure the continuation of the peace process, specifically as regards transitional justice, they must be involved in political life, as well as economic and social life. They must have a place at negotiation tables, as provided for in the women, peace and security program.
Fourth, we are very concerned by the growing lack of respect for the sexual and reproductive autonomy of women and girls. We have in particular witnessed governments that have tried, sometimes successfully, to criminalize access to abortion under all circumstances, which is a violation of international standards on the issue. LWBC and its partners are actively working to protect access to sexual health and reproductive services, particularly in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, by reminding the countries of their legally binding international obligations.
Finally, women and girls who are vulnerable or marginalized, including those with a disability, living in rural areas or in poverty, those from a sexual or gender diverse community, as well as women from a minority group, are more susceptible to having their rights and freedoms violated and being the victims of GBV. We have seen cases of forced sterilization, obstetric violence and forced marriage involving these persons in particular. We can no longer remain silent about the shadow pandemic and the rise in femicide committed by intimate partners or family members since the start of the COVID‑19 pandemic.
In view our work to better protect the rights of women and girls, we consider it very important to have an international legal framework that is upheld at the national level. In this regard, our first recommendation to the sub-committee is to utilize international fora to call upon countries that have not already done so to immediately ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, including Iran, and to remind those who are already signatories, including Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, of their obligations under this convention. We are also asking for a more active contribution, for international cooperation in particular, to promote assistance programs focused on access to justice for women and girls. These programs should support the protection of local organizations that defend the human rights of women and girls, as well as lawyers who specialize in GBV issues.
With these brief remarks, I wanted to provide a general overview of our experience. I will be pleased to provide further details about certain issues during the question period.
Thank you very much for your time.
At this moment, we are living through concurrent health, economic, environmental and humanitarian crises. All of these have profound and differentiated gendered impacts, which are compounded by where women are socially, economically and geographically located. These impacts are undeniable and include sharply rising rates of femicide and gender-based violence, inability to access or pay for essential sexual and reproductive health services, increased unpaid care work, and more precarity, lower pay and fewer labour protections than men. These are not unfortunate and inevitable side effects of a world in turmoil, but an abject failure of human rights and those responsible for upholding them.
What makes this current moment in history particularly dangerous for women is that at the same time as these crises we are also witnessing rising anti-democratic sentiment within well-established democracies, an emergence of far-right and authoritarian regimes, an acceleration in the spread of disinformation, a deliberate erosion of trust in the institutions charged with upholding human rights norms and standards, and increased transnational organizing and funding among anti-human rights, white supremacist and anti-gender equality actors.
This confluence of events and actors has resulted in an unprecedented intensification of attacks on rights related to sexuality, gender and reproduction, those who defend them and the mechanisms we use to seek protection, remedy and accountability. This is happening online, in schools, in parliaments, in bureaucracies, in the courts and at the United Nations.
This past September, Afghan women human rights defenders addressed the UN Human Rights Council to demand that the international community act on women’s complete erasure from all aspects of public life since the Taliban took over. In Saudi Arabia, women have been sent to jail for decades under the state’s terrorism laws for tweeting. The recent protests in Iran, sparked by the killing of Gina Mahsa Amini, who was arrested for violating strict laws about what women can wear, are truly emblematic of the ways in which women’s rights and bodies are deeply tied to the nation state.
No country or region is immune, and it would be a mistake to think that violations of women's rights only happen in what we think of as repressive states. One only has to look at the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that reversed almost 40 years of federal abortion rights protections.
The question is, why do these actors target gender equality, and sexual and reproductive rights? Gender and sexuality are deeply symbolic and culturally meaningful concepts in all societies. Anti-democratic actors understand the potency of using issues that can be culturally contentious, such as abortion, trans rights, and sex ed to galvanize people to support them.
At the heart of many of these anti-rights movements is a commitment to the perpetuation of patriarchal families and systems that are hetero-normative and reproduction-oriented, and can only exist through the control of women’s bodies, sexuality and gender expression. As such, the realization of sexual and reproductive rights and gender equality is a direct challenge to autocrats and populist movements that have identified and targeted these rights as threats to their purpose. Feminist sexual and reproductive rights defenders are on the front lines of attacks against human rights and democracy and face enormous risks to their lives, livelihoods and the safety of their families.
When we are talking about access to abortion, gender-based violence or early and forced marriage, we are also talking about democracy, human rights, peacebuilding and freedom from tyranny. When we identify state and non-state actors organizing, financing and influencing democratic institutions to undermine bodily autonomy, women’s rights and the rights of LGBTQI persons, these are clear signs that democracy is under threat.
History has shown us that social justice, women’s rights and feminist movements have been at the forefront of the expansion and strengthening of human rights all over the world. Political scientists have long documented that advancement in women’s rights and democracy go hand in hand, as women’s political participation is a precondition for genuine democratic and egalitarian progress.
To turn the tide of cascading human rights violations against women, we need the strongest possible commitment to nationally driven feminist and social justice movements in all aspects of Canada's domestic and foreign policy.
Thank you for the opportunity to address the Subcommittee on International Human Rights on the issue of the rapidly diminishing rights of women and girls in Iran.
This is my first time appearing before the subcommittee, and it's a pleasure to be here. Thank you very much for having me.
I would like to tell you a little bit about myself to put in context my testimony before you today. I was born in Iran in 1980, right after the revolution and after the Islamic regime hijacked the revolution and took control of the country. When I was seven years old, my parents decided to flee Iran, in part because they didn't want me and my younger sister to grow up under a repressive regime that had no respect for women's rights.
My family and I lived in Turkey for five years as refugees before we were able to come to Canada when I was 13 years old, and I'm so grateful for that difficult decision my parents had to make and so grateful for the opportunity to be living in Canada.
For the last 20 years, I have been a very vocal advocate of human rights and democracy in Iran. I started my activism during my undergraduate studies at Carleton University, where my sister and I started, to the best of my knowledge, the first Iranian student association that focused on human rights in Iran. I continued my activism after becoming a lawyer through blogging, writing articles, staying in touch with activists inside Iran, speaking to members of Parliament and speaking at various conferences both nationally and internationally.
Speaking out against the oppression of the Islamic regime is not a popular activity, and, as a result, I have been subjected to consistent backlash from supporters of the regime both in Iran and in Canada. The most noteworthy example was about 10 years ago, when the regime’s national TV put up my picture on live television. They referred to me by name, and they announced that I was an enemy of the state. I continue to watch others who are also outspoken opponents of the regime face similar threats and harassment.
However, I consider myself both privileged and fortunate because I live in Canada, where I can speak out without the fear of being arrested, tortured, raped and murdered for my opinions and beliefs. Sadly, that's not the situation for millions of Iranian women and girls who have been subjected to exactly those types of treatment for the last 40 years. It is that oppression that has motivated me to speak out against the Islamic regime whenever I’ve had the opportunity. I want to ensure that the world can and will hear the voices of millions of women and girls in Iran.
For the past two and a half months, Iranian women and girls have been able to show the entire world not only the oppression that they have been facing for the past 40 years but also that they are ready for change. They are ready for freedom, and they're willing to risk their lives to achieve that change and that freedom.
Current Iran protests, which many of us refer to as the Iran revolution, started with the murder of one young woman, Mahsa Amini, by regime agents because they didn’t like the way she was wearing her mandatory hijab.
Her murder sparked an outcry in Iran that has led to the largest protests we’ve seen in 40 years. What is so unique about these protests, besides the fact that they’re nationwide and that they've been relentless for the past two and a half months, is the fact that they’re being led by women and young girls. Elementary schoolgirls are taking off their mandatory hijabs, taking down the picture of Khamenei in their classrooms and saying no to oppression. It’s incredibly humbling for me to watch these brave young women claim what is rightfully theirs, the right to choose what they wear, what they think and how they conduct themselves. I'm grateful for the opportunity to be here today to try to be their voice.
The Canadian government has condemned the regime’s brutality in the past two and a half months, and they’ve taken limited steps to sanction the Iran revolutionary corps under the immigration act. Those are very positive first steps, but there's so much more Canada can do, including listing the entirety of the Iran revolutionary corps as a terrorist organization under the Criminal Code.
I am hopeful that the Canadian government will take concrete, meaningful steps to help these brave women and girls achieve their goals of freedom and equality.
Thank you to the witnesses for taking time to join us here today.
Women's rights are human rights, and they are at the heart of our foreign policy. We heard a lot of testimony about Canada's foreign policy today, and completely agree with what the well-intentioned mandate from is in terms of international feminist foreign policy on the world stage.
I have a few questions in terms of our international feminist foreign policy approach. I want to hear some of your thoughts on that, if you can provide some insights on that.
I know Global Affairs has committed 15% of its bilateral international development assistance across all action areas to implementing initiatives dedicated to advancing gender equality and improving women and girls' quality of life. As part of her mandate letter, Minister Joly was asked to continue developing and implementing Canada's feminist foreign policy with the support of partner organizations.
My question is this: How can the international community help promote and protect women and girls' human rights, gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls in fragile conflict and post-conflict settings?
It's open to any of the witnesses who would like to comment.
Thank you. I can start.
One of the first things I would say to that is that the international community, particularly the global north, states that there must be a stop to perpetuating this false divide between development and human rights—between civil and political rights on the one hand, and economic, social and cultural rights on the other hand. The fundamental principles of human rights demand that we understand that all human rights are interdependent and indivisible, so we cannot enjoy one set of rights without the other.
Looking specifically at the context of fragile states, and in humanitarian settings, I think women's rights—in my area of expertise, particularly sexual and reproductive rights—can't be relegated only to development assistance or special conferences that focus only on women, and then they're conveniently left out when we're talking about trade deals or debt financing or arms sales or pandemic responses. You cannot separate those things, because we see how they are interconnected, so they must be part and parcel. We must be looking at the civil and political aspects as well as the economic, social and cultural rights.
I also wanted to ask a quick question.
Ms. Doherty, honestly, your comments comparing democracy and women's rights.... When we lose women's rights, we lose democracy and we lose so much of our capacity. I think that's very important to recognize.
One thing I do want to push back on a little bit in terms of some of the previous testimony is that we do not have a feminist foreign policy in Canada. That has not been implemented. We have a feminist international assistance policy, which is fantastic and which I helped develop, but we don't have a feminist foreign policy. That means, as you point out, Ms. Doherty, that on trade, defence and all of these things where we need to have that feminist lens, we do not.
I want to make this very clear for this testimony.
Ms. Doherty, what are the direct impacts on women when we don't use that feminist foreign policy lens on things like trade and defence?
Thank you very much for the question.
In the context of trade, for example, we know that women are the lowest-paid, that they have the most precarious working conditions and that they are subject to the most exploitation. When we are talking about trade deals being made without taking into consideration the labour consideration and protections of women in particular countries or regions, we are exacerbating women's lives, their health, their security and the security of their families.
I would take the example of international financial institutions like the IMF and the World Bank, when they are going in to look at debt refinancing with a policy of austerity measures. We know that women are the most impacted by austerity measures in terms of health and social services. Unless those things are being taken into account and they are recognizing what a harmful impact those policies can have on women, it undermines a lot of the other work that Canada and other countries are trying to do to enhance women's rights.
You have to have a coherence across this range of foreign policy areas if you are serious about advocating and promoting the rights of women. It does not make any sense to only do it in one area and undermine it in another area. A cohesive policy is necessary to make that happen.
Thank you again for the question.
Yes, Canada has made a huge commitment of $700 million for sexual and reproductive health and rights over the next 10 years and $500 million of that should be allocated towards the neglected areas of abortion, contraception, adolescent sexual and reproductive health and advocacy for SRHR.
The impact of not supporting organizations and feminist movements that are doing the hard work every single day to ensure that people have access to the services and the information that they need is that people die. That's the most immediate one. We know the rates of maternal mortality around the world are skyrocketing and.... Sorry, I should rephrase that. They are very high. Around 300,000 women a year die and the numbers are potentially increasing because of the pandemic.
When we have restrictions on access to abortion, we see that women will seek out unsafe means if necessary, if there's no legal means. They suffer severe health outcomes and long-term disability in the context of unsafe abortions.