Immigrating: Ontario Women's Centres
By Pankaj Tripathi
Ontario Women's Centres (OWC) are grassroots level, community-based multi-service organizations dedicated to providing services and programs within the community. They are run by and for women of all ages. More than 20 centres, spread across the province, provide help and support to women of all backgrounds, ages and ethnicities. The first of them – The Northwestern Ontario Women's Centre – was established in the spring of 1973, after the Northern Women's Conference, organized by local women's consciousness-raising groups.
During the past three decades, society has changed dramatically, as have women, their aspirations, hopes, fears and challenges. The women’s centres have kept pace with these changes, and to this day remain a highly important component of our community and social network. Their mission has become more specific, precise and focused. The Scarborough Women’s Centre identifies its mission statement as facilitating, “...the empowerment of women, to make long term, positive changes with confidence.”
The centres have done excellent work in the area of community education and awareness on issues like violence, poverty, sexism, racism and child care. They provide support and advocacy for individual women who encounter difficulty dealing with personal, administrative or legal issues, usually involving violence, poverty or the legal system. They take the shared concerns and issues of the female population in the province to local, provincial and national committees and consultations. This helps the law makers, policy professionals and decision makers become aware of the reality and challenges of women's lives in the province.
A number of their services are of special importance to immigrant women. New to the Canadian way of life, they often face challenges in their personal, professional and social lives for which they need assistance, counselling or information. The centres provide help through training in life skills, free legal clinics, educational workshops, self-employment training, community development, ESL classes, counselling and peer counselling, help in case of physical or mental abuse, and provide information and referral for job search assistance.
Government grants, private donations, individual contributions and a variety of other sources of funding help keep these centres running. The Ontario Women's Directorate (OWD) is a major source of funding for a number of these centres.
Working at the centres is a learning experience for many women. Lynda Kosowan, who joined the Scarborough Women's Centre as Executive Director more than 25 years ago, says, “Working here taught me about the value of consulting women about their concerns. It taught me about the power of working in partnership with other groups – in different spheres, different sectors, and organizations. It also taught me about the power of the media in bringing about social change, and the importance of working with media as an ally.”
During the late 1980’s, women’s centres from across Ontario organized a campaign to lobby the Provincial government for core funding, and subsequently established The Ontario Association of Women's Centres (OWAC), which acts as a network for dialogue and collaboration. OWAC is funded by membership fees paid by women’s centres across Ontario.
Each centre responds to the needs in its own community. Programs and services also vary from one centre to another. The centres organize a range of training workshops, peer counselling and support groups. Often they are equipped with small libraries, and offer drop in programs as well. They offer excellent venues for women to learn, share and support each other. With their ability to focus on the individual and her unique needs, without compromising on the strength and resilience of the wider social network advocating for the entire community, they possess both depth and breadth.
Leyla Ali, an immigrant from Somalia who moved to Toronto in 2006, says, “The centre helped me survive and realize who I was.” A middle aged housewife, she lost her husband in a car crash hardly a year and half after landing. With no formal education, no work experience and a basic knowledge of English, it seemed her only option was to go back to Somalia. She credits the local women’s centre in her neighbourhood with helping her learn the language, get her first survival job and have a chance at rebuilding her life. Her words sum up the role of Women’s Centres beautifully, “Everybody deserves a second chance, however desperate your situation.
All you need is someone to help you get back on your feet.” It helps if that someone is a woman, who understands you, your dreams, fears and challenges, however subtle, rational or insurmountable.