An update from the Voices of New Brunswick Women Consensus-Building Forum

Tuesday, March 8 2016

March 8, 2016 FREDERICTON (GNB) – In New Brunswick, women earn less than men in total income and are more likely to live in poverty despite equal participation in the workforce. Nearly thirty percent of lone-parent women and their children live in poverty in our province—and we know that in some regions that percentage is much higher.

New Brunswick is also home to the highest rate of police reported instances of intimate partner violence east of Manitoba. Indigenous women face particularly high rates of violence—violence that is also more likely to involve weapons and result in physical injury.

And when it comes to political representation in New Brunswick, women remain under-represented at the federal, provincial, and municipal levels. For instance, in the 2012 municipal election 170 women were elected councillors. That’s the most ever—but still only one-third of all council seats in a province where women and girls make up half of the population. The numbers are far lower for mayors; only 19 of New Brunswick’s 105 mayors are women. Racialized women are particularly underrepresented in elected positions.

It is apparent that in New Brunswick, as in the rest of Canada, we must do more to enable women and girls to raise their voices, to advocate for change, and to improve their lives and the lives of others.

The Voices of New Brunswick Women Consensus-Building Forum will do that.

Created in 2014, our purpose is to advance women’s equality in New Brunswick—even when that means challenging government on issues. We provide independent advice to the provincial government on matters of interest to women while bringing issues to public attention in order to work towards gender equality in New Brunswick.

We are focused on four priority areas – representation and participation; wellness and access; economy and self-sufficiency; and violence. Our work to date includes participating in the Child Sector Task Forcepublicly supporting increased abortion accessadvocating for an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and calling for public release of findings from the gender-based analysis of the Strategic Program Review.

In addition to issue-based work, we have supported a number of community-based events, including the World March of Women held in October, 2015 and youth-led workshops and panels focused on gender-equality issues.

In the coming weeks, we will welcome new members. You can read about our current members atwww.voixfemmesnb-voiceswomennb.ca.

We are proud of the work we have completed to date but we know we have only just begun. In our conversations with community-based groups, we recognize the need to raise the Forum’s voice to become a strong and independent advocate for gender equality in New Brunswick.

However that remains a challenge for the Forum. Our status within government is unclear, which has hampered our ability to assign funds and commit to longer-term projects. To be blunt, no one seems to know what we are – and that’s a problem.

When the Forum was first created it was strongly tied to a government department: the Women’s Equality Branch. The Forum’s budget sat within the Branch—in fact, half of the funding initially announced for the Forum was in the form of in-kind contributions from the Branch, not funds actually available to the Forum.

This arrangement limited the Forum’s independence. Most independent public advisory bodies are not part of government’s traditional departmental structure. Instead, they are agencies, boards, or commissions governed by legislation.

In fact, the Forum is the only gender equality advisory body in Canada to lack legislation.

The 2015-16 budget strengthened the Forum’s independence by increasing funding and separating it from the Branch’s budget. These positive changes revealed other challenges. Specifically: the Forum was no longer part of the traditional departmental structure, but was also not an agency, board, or commission.

This lack of clarity cuts to the heart of the Forum’s ability to fulfill its mandate. What the Forum is and how that is defined, be it by legislation or another mechanism, will affect the nature of its independence—something that members and staff need absolutely clarity on given that our work will at times require publicly critiquing the Forum’s funder, the Government of New Brunswick.

We anticipate the Premier and Minister responsible for Women’s Equality will soon be presented with options to define what the Forum is and enshrine its independence; we hope that one is selected, with input from the Forum, and implemented quickly. Doing so would fulfill a platform commitment to ensuring the independence of and funding for an independent advisory body on women’s issues.

In the coming months we will be increasing our issues-driven work, including ongoing consultation with women and girls of New Brunswick to identify priority needs, issues, and solutions. While the Forum’s focus will shift to issues, we will continue our internal development work.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, Forum members look forward to working with all New Brunswickers to advance women’s equality in the province. 

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