Housing rights are women’s rights


*Speech made by ED Leilani Farha Thursday, June 13th accepting the Barbra Schlifer award in Toronto.

Of course it’s not really the pages I’ve published, the UN halls I’ve walked, or the meetings I’ve attended that landed me here tonight.  This may sound like a cliché, but I know that I am here standing on the shoulders of giants: the women who came before me and worked tirelessly in pursuit of women’s human rights and equality.

I also know that any successes I’ve had are a result of collaborations and the company I have been lucky enough to keep. The array of advocates, community activists, lawyers, and academics across Canada and internationally all of whom share with me the belief that the success of a nation is measured against how the most vulnerable and disadvantage fair and not by the wealth of a few.

I’ll admit that I’m not really one for awards. So I am surprised by my reaction to this one: I am honored, quietly delighted,  and a little astonished.

You see, when I first started out as a human rights lawyer in the 90s, I certainly couldn’t have anticipated receiving any awards for my ideas and activism. Most of my work back then was focused on implementing a key idea: the idea that housing is a human right that must be centrally concerned with and applicable to women’s lives.

I have to say my analysis wasn’t terribly sophisticated. It went something like this:  I figured, on a global level women – whether we feminists like it or not – spend more time in and around the house than do men.  And women have distinct experiences in housing, like violence.  So from there it seemed obvious to me that the right to adequate housing has to have room for women and must protect against other human rights violations.

But what was obvious to me brushed up against resistance and conservatism; my work was greeted with something between complete skepticism and outright hostility.

Fast forward to the present.

On the one hand, women’s housing rights are now entrenched in international human rights standards, and used to protect women against violence.

But on the other, in many ways, the political and legal environment in which I work is even more inhospitable than when I first stepped into the arena in the 90s.  However, now it’s not just one of my ideas that are viewed skeptically it’s everything I represent.  Put it this way: under the current national leadership it is very difficult to live and work in Canada right now and to be an Arab Canadian, a feminist, a human rights advocate, and an Executive Director of a charitable organization concerned with socio-economic deprivation and women’s human rights.

And yet, here I stand in an architectural gem being presented with the Spirit of Barbra Schlifer Award: honoured, delighted and astonished.  I want to say to Tory’s – the sponsors of the award – to the Schlifer Clinic and to Amanda Dale: Thank you.

Thank you for recognizing the important role that advocacy plays alongside front line services in protecting women against violence;

Thank you for recognizing that violence against women has social and economic rights dimensions that must be addressed as part of the solution; and

Thank you for having the vision to create this Award in the name of a young woman who wanted to change the world.  I am in such good company.

Now, before I cede the floor, I want us to pause for a minute and consider this:

  •  Between 3 and 4 million people in Canada are living in poverty.
  •  900,000 people use foodbanks EVERY month, disproportionately women and children;
  •  300,000 people are living in emergency shelters for the homeless, including many women victims of violence;
  •  Over 800 Aboriginal women in this country have gone missing and are presumed murdered; and
  •  In a given year, approximately 80,000 women call the police to report an incident of violence by an intimate partner;

By my measuring stick Canada is not a success.

Ours remains a broken country.

But what’s broken can be fixed. And I think those of us with privilege have a responsibility to step up.

I have lots of ideas of what each of you could do. But tonight, I’m going to ask you to do one thing. And it happens to be one of the very things I’ve been asking the Federal government to do: Exercise your spending power. It’s simple, efficient and effective. Bid handsomely on the auction items for sale here tonight. And give generously to make change. Here and now. And in the future.

Thank you.