Advancing the Rights of Women Living in Poverty
CURA researchers, Gwen Brodsky and Shelagh Day, developed the “Advancing the Rights of Poor Women Project” to increase the capacity for strategic legal advocacy on behalf of poor women in British Columbia. As part of the project, community consultations were held with front-line advocates and lawyers who work with poor women in Vancouver, Victoria, Prince Rupert, and Prince George. The purpose of these consultations was to assess the central issues affecting poor women by touching base with those who are helping poor women to solve problems on a daily basis; and to test the interest of the front line advocates and lawyers in the development of broad litigation and law reform strategies to advance the rights of poor women.
The interest in the development of broad litigation and law reform strategies was overwhelming. Front line workers and advocates were, invariably, frustrated by confinement to dealing with problems individually rather than systemically, and with trying to deal with problems without sufficient resources. Front line advocates and lawyers confirmed that inadequate income assistance, inadequate or no housing, vanishing civil legal aid, male violence, lack of adequate childcare, and high rates of child apprehension are central issues and they are integrally connected.
The striking feature of these consultations was the consistent description of a circle of connected events in the lives of poor women, which Brodsky and Day refer to as the “vicious circle.” Women may enter this circle at any point, and for different reasons. There is no particular event that initiates the harmful momentum of the circle. Any one of the events identified can be the precipitating one. Once a woman enters the vicious circle, however it happens, the likelihood of other harmful events in the circle occurring is greatly increased.
The connected events described by participants included: male violence, lack of adequate housing, inadequate welfare, child apprehension, lack of legal aid, and depression/addiction. These events are caused by, and are a consequence of, sex and race discrimination. They are difficult to escape, especially without significant supports available. One participant described the circle of events for Aboriginal women this way: sexual abuse in childhood; addictions; poverty; inadequate welfare; loss of children; loss of housing.
Another participant described this circle of events: A woman seeks to leave a violent relationship, but there are few adequate supports. Often a woman needs social assistance so that she can support herself and her family independently from the violent partner. Once she is receiving social assistance, inadequate rates mean finding and maintaining adequate housing for herself and her children is difficult, if not impossible. Children may be apprehended because they have witnessed male violence, or because living conditions are considered poor enough to constitute “neglect”. Once children are apprehended, it is often hard for women to get them back. Shelter allowances are cut when children are not present, but a mother has to show that she has an adequate place for children to live before the children can be returned. Lack of legal aid to deal with separation matters, representation before children are taken away, welfare entitlements, and poor housing, makes it difficult to break out of the circle.
The complete findings of the Project were submitted to the Law Foundation of British Columbia in the spring of 2010.