In 1908, women marched through the streets of New York City calling for shorter hours, better pay and voting rights. Three years later saw the first official International Women’s Day (IWD), with more than one million women and men rallying in several European countries to call for women’s rights.

In the ensuing years, the popularity of IWD has waxed and waned, as have women’s equality rights. Women in this country, for instance, have long had the right to vote although, while most white women could vote by 1918, it was not until 1960 that all “registered Indians” were able to do so. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms established formal equality rights for women. Provincial and federal legislation codified women’s rights to equal pay, maternity leave, protection from sex discrimination and harassment in the workplace and more. Abortion was decriminalized more than 30 years ago.

The pandemic versus women’s rights

IWD 2021 comes as we reach the one-year mark of the global pandemic. That pandemic has shone an unprecedented light on women’s ongoing inequalities as well as on violence against women.

In Canada, women were the first to lose their jobs when businesses shut down or changed their operations to meet public health requirements. According to a July report by RBC, women’s position in the workplace has been set back by 30 years as a result of the pandemic. A follow-up report in November noted that women “continue to retreat from the workforce even as Canadian men more than make up for ground lost early in the pandemic.

The rate of violence against women has escalated due, in no small measure, to stay at home orders that mean women with abusive partners have no opportunity to escape them, even for short periods of time. This is a global crisis, as has been noted by the United Nations, which has called violence against women the shadow pandemic.

In other words women, even in this very privileged country, in just one year, have lost some of the gains we and those before us fought hard to get.

Hope for the future

However, there is reason to feel a certain level of hope. The revised Divorce Act and, in Ontario, Children’s Law Reform Act, both of which set out new and improved regimes for determining parenting arrangements and provide a strong definition of family violence for family courts to use as part of the best interests of the child test, came into effect a week ago.

In June of last year, Saskatchewan became the first province to implement Clare’s Law, which creates a protocol for police to disclose risk information related to someone’s violent or abusive past to intimate partners whose safety may be threatened. Other provinces are considering similar legislation.

The federal government is developing a National Action Plan on Gender-Based Violence, based on recommendations coming from a wide range of women’s equality organizations.

The public inquiry into last year’s mass shooting in Nova Scotia offers the possibility of examining the role of intimate partner abuse in a tragedy that ultimately resulted in 22 violent deaths.

Learning from the past

It’s too early to know whether any of these initiatives will lead to the intended positive outcomes. Previous initiatives to advance women’s equality and end violence against women have all too often led to unintended negative consequences or have faded into the background because of a lack of sustained resourcing, changes in political will or a lack of the necessary social policy.

Equal pay for work of equal value legislation, for example, has little real meaning for women who must pop in and out of the workforce and work part time because they are doing most of the heavy lifting of raising children, in large measure due to Canada’s lack of a coherent national child care strategy. Likewise, the fact that abortion is decriminalized offers little to women who live in parts of the country where they have no access to services that provide abortions.

Talk about ending gender-based violence is just that until governments at all levels properly fund the community services that support survivors and until courts enforce the laws that are already in place. Without implementation of the Calls to Justice of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, there will be no equality and no justice for Indigenous women and girls.

This is why International Women’s Day still matters. In Canada, it is an opportunity to celebrate the achievements women have made, to recognize the privilege many of us have compared with women in many other parts of the world, to acknowledge ongoing opportunities for hope and to recommit to continuing to challenge and fight for the many changes that are still needed if we are to narrow and eventually close the gap between formal and substantive equality.

This article was originally published by The Lawyer’s Daily, part of LexisNexis Canada Inc.