Women: What Are My Rights?

By Sally McBride

I watched with a smile as a young woman, wearing the modest dress and headscarf of a Muslim, rode the bus in downtown Toronto. I wondered about her. Was she going to work, or to school perhaps? She was reading as she hung on in the bouncing bus, a book called Anne of Green Gables - a beloved novel written almost 100 years ago by Canadian Lucy Maud Montgomery. The "Anne" in the story is a young, red-haired orphan girl sent to live with her Aunt and Uncle. Anne is brave and curious, eager to learn all about her new home and to make her way in life.

What are my rights? Did the young reader feel that she was a bit like Anne, eager to learn about her new home?

She is probably much like many women who emigrate to Canada in search of a new start. They too are brave and resourceful, but perhaps a bit worried about what differences my lie in the "Canadian" way of life.

Just what is different here in Canada? To new immigrants it may seem big, cold and hard to understand. Some things are familiar and some are strange.

Most women come to Canada ready and able to take on a new life. Others are not so lucky. Some families move here from cultures where the woman's role is below that of her husband or father, where she must wear traditional clothing, not go out without a male relative at her side, and so on.

But when you come to a new country, everything is supposed to change for the better, right? Well, it may not be that easy a move. Sometimes, the attitude of traditional customs of the "old country", and of the law towards women's rights is very different. Though international law supports women's rights to equal treatment everywhere, often that is not the case in real life.

In Canada, women, by law, have the same rights and opportunities as men, though it has been less than 75 years since women were awarded the status of "person" - that is, not the "property" of a man. Women activists got together and rebelled against being without rights. In most cultures of the time they were a possession of their father who "sold" them, with a dowry, to a husband.

Women wanted the same rights as the other half of the world's population: men. They asked for the right to vote, to own land and to participate in the working world on an equal basis. The activists of the early 1900s worked to improve the lives of all Canadian women, including newcomers. Working conditions, health, child care, marriage rights, political rights, educational and job opportunities, and more, all have become more fair. But again, that is the ideal, and often is not the reality. Sadly, even in a progressive, enlightened country such as Canada, there are times when women still have to argue and plead for an equal share of life. How can you find out if your rights as a woman are being violated?

First of all, you must know what those rights are.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms contains seven key personal rights including Equality Rights: "Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability."

The Charter is meant to keep and promote the multicultural heritage of Canadians. As well, it aims to uphold rights and freedoms equally, whether for men or women.

Sometimes this is difficult to do. If, to gain equality, a woman must defy her husband or members of her cultural group, who is right? Are her rights as an individual more important than the established traditions and beliefs of her homeland? This is a difficult question that we hope will be solved eventually, but as for now, compromise has to happen.

It is one thing to argue with a teen-age girl who wants to wear Canadian-style clothing which may seem immodest to parents from another culture. That isn't a very big problem, though it can be frustrating. It is a much bigger problem if a woman feels she is being seriously threatened or restricted, and her health or safety are being harmed. Discrimination or violence against women, or any abuse against women is a serious offence in Canada. Shelter and legal protection are available for women and children who need it. Many community resources exist to help women whose rights are being violated, or who simply need facts.

A good place to start looking for helpful information is The Toronto Community Information Phone Line. Simply dial 211 on your phone - it is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Professional social workers will answer your questions. This service provides telephone information and contact numbers for Government help lines, health information, social services contacts, employment resources, English as a second language courses, legal help, and much more. The social workers are glad to help you in over 20 languages, among them French, Cantonese and Mandarin, Urdu, Spanish, Ukrainian and others. They have a web site at www.211toronto.ca with links to other useful sites for newcomers.

Another organization is the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants - OCASI for short. It is a collective of more than 150 agencies and community organizations. Their activities include advocacy (backing and support), education, and policies that affect immigrants. Their web site is at www.ocasi.org, or phone them at 416-322-4950.

There are many more groups, organizations and agencies ready to help ease the newcomer's passage into a new way of life here in Canada. Future stories in Canadian Newcomer Magazine will try and share what they can do for you.

CNM