An independent, community-based project called “Breaking Isolation, Getting Involved,” was officially initiated in September, 2000, supported by grants from Status of Women Canada and The Access and Equity Office of the City of Toronto. The project was designed to engage women rather than simply survey them. Meetings were approached as an opportunity for women to share their stories, listen to one another and learn from the facilitator, as well as from each other, about how their experiences relate to public policy-making at various levels of government.
Solidarity and Learning
In most cases, a warm sense of solidarity evolved over the course of animated conversations. Women began to see themselves within a broader picture of women of colour in low-income neighbourhoods across the city, and they developed a deeper empathy with their neighbours and the challenges in their lives. Women repeatedly decried the fact that there are very few ongoing opportunities for them to meet in this way. They expressed a desire to learn, share and unravel their everyday encounters with others outside of a social-work framework in which they are pathologized as clients with problems.
The overall picture that emerged from the discussions is both stark and optimistic. Poverty is the women’s biggest challenge, and even their tough resourcefulness cannot overcome the impossibilities this condition creates in their lives. Yet the women, many of whom are racialized immigrants, have insistent dreams of better and more independent lives. Managing rising levels of stress and ill health, Toronto’s low-income women try to make the impossible possible. Decent housing is hard to find in a tight rental market, and many landlords discriminate against women who are either single mums, social-assistance recipients, or racialized women. Increasing numbers of women have lost the roofs over their heads, while many more face an invisible form of homelessness in which they are bunking with relatives, barely surviving in substandard, expensive, overcrowded and badly maintained units too often infested with pests and vermin.
In spite of their great desire to work and better their economic circumstances, few of these women are able to find paid work. Those who do have jobs find themselves in part-time, insecure, low-paying positions, which offer little hope of advancement. Many aren’t able to even look for work because of the lack of affordable childcare. Few know how to access regulated care and, where they do find childcare, informal arrangements are the norm. Elderly women, many of whom speak little English, find themselves stuck doing long hours of unpaid work caring for their children’s children.
Social assistance doesn’t bring in enough money to pay the bills. But it still exacts a heavy price, as it takes away dignity and privacy through the constant scrutiny of authorities who investigate for minor “infractions,” including unreported gifts, food, or money from friends and relatives.
Isolation and Weakness
Women are keenly aware of their isolation and how it weakens their position. Opportunities to make connections outside of their immediate family, cultural and religious networks are extremely limited. As a result, they are housebound and vulnerable to abuse from partners, children and other family members. Some have been in Canada for many years and, despite having gone through formal language training programs, have never had the social opportunities needed to develop their conversational English skills.
There are few accessible, non-commercial and secular places for healthy activity and social interaction among women, especially near their homes. Women and girls are no longer a designated priority in the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, and there are few, if any, women’s programs left in the schedule. As a result, recreation centres too easily default into a competitive, masculinist sports culture that implicitly excludes most women.
Transit costs are out of reach for low-income women. Those who travel the TTC overwhelmingly report discrimination and abusive behaviour by operators towards poor and racialized women. Disabled women have few options other than WheelTrans, where pick-up times can be delayed up to five hours, during which they are expected to wait outdoors, regardless of the weather.
Distrust of authority figures is not unfounded for low-income and racialized women. Around public-housing complexes, police and security guards operate on stereotypes and assumptions about poor people. They are slow to respond to women’s calls on domestic violence, but quick to harass their children for spending time outdoors with friends in their neighbourhoods.
The Complexities of Oppression
Few women have even basic information about their rights or the avenues through which they can access justice. The daily experience of being treated as a second-class citizen leaves some hopeless about the possibility of effecting change. Without ongoing support, counsel and encouragement, they cannot develop the capacity to advocate individually or collectively for much-needed changes in the conditions of their lives.
When the stress of coping mounts to the breaking point, affordable counseling is rarely available, so some women turn to doctors. Class, language, cultural and gender biases mean that women are often misunderstood, disbelieved, or dismissed by medical professionals.
Women’s groups, where they exist, offer a glimmer of hope. But they are grappling with overwhelming needs and severely limited staff, space and resources. Women’s centres are forced to tightly program their work according to the dictates of funders. Many can no longer function as drop-in centres.
Most ethno-specific women’s initiatives are in much the same position as their clients. They have little or no access to stable funding, are forced to operate on short-term projects with volunteers, and underpaid part-time and temporary staff who don’t have a chance to develop their skills beyond their basic qualifications. Larger community-service agencies, on the other hand, largely operate in a gender- and/or race-neutral framework. Their approaches do not address the complex and differing issues arising from the women’s multiple and intersecting experiences of racism, sexism, poverty, immigrant or refugee status, disability, old age, widowhood, or single parenthood.
The Eight Recommendations
Out of the meetings that took place across the 18 months during which the project was funded, and in further meetings since, a set of eight policy recommendations was agreed upon. The eight recommendations are that:
- City Hall should spearhead the establishment of a network of full-time, core-funded, cross-cultural women’s drop-in centres in low-income neighbourhoods across the City.
- A priority campaign, titled “LiveSafe,” be set up to ensure proper maintenance in Toronto’s rental housing.
- The Toronto Transit Commission and the City’s Social Services Division should implement a two-pronged transit-access initiative that includes: a) the provision of discounted Metropasses to social-assistance recipients at 30 per cent of retail cost or $33 monthly passes; and b) the establishment of a Human Rights Inquiry into discrimination in the Toronto public-transit system, with a special emphasis on soliciting the views of multiply marginalized women.
- The City organize a training program for women who are front-line workers in ethno-specific and service agencies and others who are in contact with survivors of gender-based violence.
- The Parks and Recreation Department place a high priority on women’s access to City programs and facilities, with a publicity campaign to increase their use by low-income women, women of colour and refugee women and their families.
- There be a multilingual human and social rights information campaign for women whose first language is not English.
- There be a review of low-income women of colour’s experiences with health services.
- The City’s Community and Neighbourhood Services Division encourage and support the development of an independent cross-cultural Women’s Social Planning Group.
The need for proactive approaches in this city has never been greater. Inequality based on race and gender is not new. But in the past 15 years feminized and racialized poverty and segregation have created a ballooning underclass in Toronto–one that is falling out of the democratic processes of both decision-making and community resistance. Only a concerted effort for meaningful action by policy-makers, analysts, advocates and residents can reverse the trend.
This is an excerpt from the 2003 report If Low-Income Women of Colour Counted in Toronto, by Punam Khosla. A group of women is now meeting in Toronto to get the eight recommendations stemming from the report implemented.
This article appeared in the November/December 2004 issue of Canadian Dimension .