‘Really dire’: Women’s organizations warn of a sector in crisis

COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting women — and organizations are calling for a permanent funding shift in order to support them now and post-pandemic
By Sula Greene - Published on Mar 08, 2021
Women are on the front lines of the pandemic, making up 81 per cent of the health-care and social-assistance workforce. (Chris Young/CP)

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The mounting pressures of a pandemic that has forced program closures, coupled with decades of underfunding, has put organizations in the women’s sector in a difficult position as they work to serve a group disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

Women are on the front lines of the pandemic, making up 81 per cent of the health-care and social-assistance workforce. They’re feeling the impacts of the COVID-induced recession: by the end of March 2020, women had suffered 63 per cent of job losses, and, when the economy reopened in May, jobs returned faster for men than for women.

COVID-19 has also given rise to a so-called shadow pandemic — a global rise in gender-based violence as many women are isolated with their abusers. The federal minister for women and gender equality, Maryam Monsef, has noted an increase of 20 to 30 per cent in domestic-violence rates during the pandemic.

But experts say that the women’s sector — made up of organizations that serve and advocate for cis- and transwomen and two-spirit and gender-diverse people — is facing challenges providing support. According to a December 2020 report by YWCA Canada, the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women, the Canadian Women’s Foundation, G(irls)20, and Oxfam Canada, decades of cuts have left it in crisis. The sector, which includes sexual-assault centres and shelters, community organizations with women-specific programming, and gender-equity advocacy groups, is funded through an unpredictable combination of donations, corporate gifts, and grants. Those who work in the sector are calling for a permanent shift from project to core funding — which is not tied to specific project deliverables — to help organizations adapt to changing realities. 

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“It's very hard for [organizations] in a situation like this pandemic when they've received funding to carry out specific activities ... and then they can't carry out those activities,” says Anuradha Dugal, the senior director of community initiatives and policy at the Canadian Women’s Foundation. “How do they secure and maintain their existence when their core costs aren't covered except when they do those activities?”

While the sector works to address the impacts of COVID-19 on women, organizations are facing challenges internally. “It's been really dire during this time where fundraising has been down. It's been challenging to keep services open right now,” says Anjum Sultana, national director of public policy, advocacy, and strategic communications at YWCA Canada.

“It’s a situation where you've got this house, which is society in Canada, but it's built on this foundation with these enormous cracks in it,” says Dugal. “So what happens to women when they face abuse? What happens to women when they can't get financial help? When the pandemic hit, the foundation cracked wide open.”

Core funding from donors and governments not tied to specific project deliverables would allow organizations to increase the stability and flexibility of the sector, Sultana says: “What we've seen is that a lot of the work we do is not project-based. It’s impacting and supporting emerging needs as they happen.”

Although in-person services have been cancelled, women’s organizations are experiencing more demand than ever, according to Dugal. The complexity of care has increased: weekly safety planning with a survivor of domestic violence, she notes, is now more likely to involve concerns related to food, jobs, and housing security.

But the funding hasn’t been consistent, she adds: “If [programs] had to be cut back, that's a negotiation that's happened during the pandemic with many funders ... to negotiate either to delay that programming until they can reopen it after the pandemic, which means not just putting the programming on ice but putting the funding on ice.”

At the outset of the pandemic, the federal government provided $50 million to address gender-based violence; the majority of the funding was dedicated to women’s shelters, sexual-assault centres, and other organizations providing supports and services to women experiencing violence. In April 2020, it announced another $350 million for community organizations through the Emergency Community Support Fund.       

Emergency response funding was welcomed by those at women’s organizations, but according to Sultana, it will take more to overcome the legacy of years of underfunding in the sector. 

“Canada is one of the few countries that has been really consistent in ensuring that money comes out for shelters and gender based violence. But I will say it is definitely just the beginning,” says Sultana. “We have less staff and more need. So the money was a good start, but it's nowhere near enough. There has been historical underfunding of the sector so even before the crisis, people were struggling.”

According to the December women’s-sector report, 39 per cent of women’s-rights organizations reported that they had not been able to access emergency-benefit programs created by the federal and provincial governments because their needs didn’t meet the funding criteria. According to a May 2020 report by the Canadian Women’s Foundation, women’s shelters are one service that has benefitted “from provincial funding that is largely secure and recurring”.

Nelli’s, a feminist organization that provides services for women and children in Toronto is one such orgnaization. They have received additional funding to respond to the pandemic from the city, the province, and the federal government. “Their response, in our experience, has been quite generous,” says executive director Jyoti Singh, although he notes that such funding doesn’t cover administrative costs.

But, Dugal says, though shelters are critical, there are many other organizations involved in empowering and protecting women harmed by gender-based violence: What people don't understand always is that there are actually a ton of small community level organizations [that] provide that outreach support and that women know they can go and get the help they need — especially in rural areas, in Northern areas, in places that are a little bit more remote. And they actually need as much funding as shelters do.” 

In an email to TVO.org, Maja Stefanovska from Women and Gender Equality Canada highlighted the increase in support for women’s organizations since the federal Liberals were elected.

“We recognize the crucial and lifesaving work of women’s organizations and continue to support women and women’s organizations breaking through barriers. We currently support more than 500 women's organizations and equality-seeking organizations, 90% of which receive multi-year funding. Since 2015, we also gave long-term funding to over 500 organizations – 70 percent more than were funded over the last five years of the previous government.”

In “A Feminist Economic Recovery Plan for Canada,” released in July 2020, YWCA Canada and the Uof T’s Institute for Gender and the Economy called for the government to “invest in organizations that advance gender equity, intersectional feminism, and women’s rights in Canada through investments in core multi-year funding.”

In the throne speech delivered on September 23, 2020, the federal government committed to an intersectional feminist recovery.

“Recognizing the need for a feminist and intersectional response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of key initiatives have been launched to support women in Canada throughout the pandemic and beyond, such as the call for proposals for the Feminist Response and Recovery Fund,” says Stefanovska.

In February 2021, the $100 million fund opened applications to organizations that support women’s recovery from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly for underrepresented women.    

“It is a promising start, but the work continues,” the YWCA wrote in a February 2021 statement. “We are currently in the midst of the 2021 Pre-Budget Consultations, and recommendations from our Feminist Economic Recovery Plan are top of mind. It’s been two years since the Federal government released a Budget, and the world has changed dramatically in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The response to the COVID-19 pandemic is of top concern, but so is ensuring that whatever economic recovery comes forth is equitable and fair.”

Although societal progress has been made, Dugal says, such organizations continue to fulfill vital functions. “Women's-sector organizations have lacked easy to access long-term, significant funding — the assumption for so many people is that women's equality has been reached and that, therefore, there's no reason to have charities that do that work,” says Dugal. “The reality is there's still pay-equity gaps, there is still a lack of essential services for women in key areas of the country ... There are many reasons why women-serving agencies and organizations need to continue to exist.”

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