City & Politics, Essay

Women’s work

By Kara Passey

After attending a women’s forum at Thunderbird House on October 8th at which only three mayoral candidates – including one male – bothered to attend, and after hearing that an inaccessible $25.00 per ticket version on October 14th provided nothing but disappointment insofar as the candidates’ lack of knowledge on women’s issues, one thing is abundantly clear: Winnipeg’s decision makers (and wannabe decision makers) have no idea what it’s like to be a woman in this city.

Winnipeg’s women are pushing strollers through snow-blocked sidewalks, bringing their babies onto the overcrowded and ill-timed buses because there are no grocery stores or doctors in their immediate community, and sharing food with their neighbours because their budgets can’t stretch far enough. Winnipeg’s women are afraid to walk the streets at night, are unsupported when they report assaults, and are going missing and murdered while the system turns a blind eye. Winnipeg’s women are doing all the work they can to fix problems they didn’t cause: they are holding rallies and marches, and they are working in non-profits, but they are overworked, under-appreciated, and poorly paid.

According to “Community Economic Development (CED) and the New Economy: Women” published by the Manitoba Research Alliance (MRA) in 2006, Winnipeg can be considered a focal point for work that employs CED principals. Many of our non-profits already put the community at the centre of their work to create holistic approaches that promote local investment for local growth while recognizing the strengths already present in their communities. The North Point Douglas Women’s Centre, which hosted the recent women’s forum at Thunderbird House mentioned above, is one example of these non-profits.

It makes sense that women would be interested in CED: as those overrepresented in poverty statistics, they often have a lived experience that allows them to personally reflect while doing community based work, and the success of the programs could benefit them directly. It could also be that since women are still default caregivers, they are able to identify with the work needed to support our babies, youth, and elderly, or what is needed to combat street gangs and related violence in our communities. The support of this work through formal CED initiatives could ensure their efforts are not only more sustainable, but extending greater benefits to others. As mentioned in the MRA’s report, it’s often assumed that working within CED principals is inherently feminist because of its focus on empowerment.

Many non-profits use CED principals to combat the negative effects of capitalism while various Aboriginal-led programs find them useful in addressing the aftermath of colonization. There is no denying that racialized poverty within Winnipeg’s inner city is directly related to colonialism and must be analyzed within this framework. It is noteworthy that many Aboriginal women end up at these programs seeking help with family, CFS, or housing issues, and end up volunteering and finding work within the program themselves. The ability to directly make a difference in their communities in ways that address racism, poverty, and community health creates empowerment both for those working and being supported.

The problem lies in the fact that the overwhelming majority of these jobs are part-time, contract or term based, and don’t offer adequate compensation. Many who work at non-profits embracing CED principals find that decisions concerning what work can be done directly correlates to the amount of funding received. More troubling is that too much time is spent trying to secure future funding instead of doing the work needed in the community itself. And so, many of the programs seeking to clean up social and economic messes made by our government struggle to exist at the hand of government funding. It is a distressing cycle.

Social services jobs are crucial to sustainable community life. They are largely filled by women. The volunteers are predominately women. The students attending the Urban and Inner City Studies Program at the University of Winnipeg, and the Inner City Social Work Program at the University of Manitoba, are predominately women. It is because the theory and practice of caring is traditionally segregated as women’s work that it remains so even today? Social services jobs are under-valued and under-paid. Does the wage gap between social services jobs and other types of employment reflect the overall wage gap that shows women’s earnings are only 73% of men’s? Is the evident lack of value placed on this type of work connected to the many ways in which women’s unseen labour of homemaking and care giving is still taken for granted and unpaid?

It must be emphasized that community-based social services should not replace the ones provided by other levels of government, but rather complement them on a local level. There will always be a need for social assistance and/or employment insurance; however, local CED programs can pick up the slack in distinctly regional ways. For example, when a woman is dealing with Child and Family Services, it is municipal-level programs that can best help her navigate the system and pick up where it falls short.

Women, and the work they do, are the backbone of this city, and that is why all candidates for mayor should care about “women’s issues.” Not only should candidates be fully aware of the difference women-led community-based programs make to all city residents, but they should acknowledge the essential nature of these programs by ensuring they fully respected, protected, and funded accordingly.