“This year’s International Women’s Day theme was ‘Embrace Equity.’ While women’s rights in Canada have come far from the first wave of feminism, we still have more work to do to embrace equity. This is even truer for women of colour and Indigenous women. Women of colour and Indigenous women face multiple forms of racism and discrimination, health disparities and inequities, poverty, marginalization, low employment rates, and the list goes on. I would like to see a Canada that embraces equity, where no woman is left behind, because one woman left behind is far too many.”
-Fatuma Khalif, Enhanced Lifeskills Facilitator
At GGP, the majority of our staff are women, and many of them are refugees or immigrants who had diverse and meaningful careers before coming to Canada. To honour International Women’s Day earlier this month, we spoke to several of our colleagues about the powerful women’s rights work and humanitarian aid work they devoted decades of their lives to.
While attending university in her home country of Sudan, Ebtsam Elsheikh was drawn into women’s rights activism by her own lived experience of the injustices she and other women were facing. She came together with a group of other Sudanese women to work to improve the conditions many women lived in and advocate against harmful laws and practices such as female genital mutilation. They also collaborated with UNICEF and Doctors Without Borders, travelling to remote areas to deliver medicine to women and children and carrying out other humanitarian initiatives. However, this work put her and her young family in danger. “When the government changed they started looking at us as bad women. They were always investigating us and our families; we were not safe, and sometimes they would put me in jail for two or three days without reason,” Ebtsam said. She came to Canada as a political refugee, fleeing persecution.
At GGP, Ebtsam is a Client Care Facilitator who assists women and families in crisis, connecting them with support services and helping them navigate life in Canada. She is particularly proud of the specialized support she is able to provide to refugee mothers. Recently, she began working with a single mother who couldn’t see a future for herself in Canada. This client had emigrated from North Africa with her husband and sons, supporting her family as her husband retrained for Canadian certification in his profession and found success. Her husband then left her and her sons, taking the car and leaving the province. She was highly educated in her home country, in the same profession as her husband, but had not recertified in Canada and was underemployed, leaving her unable to afford their rent and support her sons on her own. Ebtsam says this woman was devastated and completely unaware that in Canada, her husband has a legal obligation to continue helping her to financially support their children. Ebtsam began by connecting this client with immediate support services and then she worked with a lawyer to secure child support and spousal support. After counselling and many one-on-one meetings with Ebtsam, this client also gained the confidence and skills necessary to successfully obtain full-time work in her field.
Ebtsam says this is not an uncommon story, she often finds herself helping women in vulnerable situations to believe that they can build a stable and fulfilling life on their own. Ebtsam says something that drew her to GGP was the opportunity to inform newcomer women of their rights. She observed that even though they may have been in Canada for years, many women do not know how the Canadian government differs from the government in their home country. “These women don’t know that they have the right to be equal with men,” she said. Ebtsam is very familiar with the complex religious, political, and social reasons that our clients may struggle to believe in gender equality, and her shared cultural background and personal history connects her with our clients as she shows them alternate possibilities for their future.
Over twenty years ago, Maria Reha began her humanitarian aid work at home in Afghanistan. Her first role was serving Afghanistan’s internally displaced peoples with the United Nations’ World Food Programme. She then became a Gender Advisor with Oxfam, successfully establishing major initiatives to support vulnerable people in the most remote areas in Afghanistan. For example, she was part of a team that brought water access to 60 villages, changing the way of life for the women who had been forced to climb mountains, risking their lives and their children’s lives, to haul water for their community. She then moved into public education and her work spanned a wide range, from elevating female voices in media to empowering women to vote. Over the years, she collaborated with many international organizations and provided her expertise to crucial projects addressing gender-based violence, policing, employment, education, and women’s health.
Maria says she was brought to this work through internal conviction and her awareness of the ongoing violence against women, barriers to female education, and women’s absence from political and economic leadership. Her work with GGP is a continuation of her humanitarian career; as a Client Care Facilitator, she assists our most vulnerable clients. Maria has been a crucial member of our team as we support Afghan arrivals.
Her primary piece of advice for Canadians as we continue to seek gender equality is to “ensure that human rights are not symbolic; otherwise it will [be harmful] and the actual meaning of human rights will lose its trust among public.”
Sepideh Oveysifar began her career as a Social Worker in Iran. “I worked with neglected, abused, and vulnerable girls and women for about 10 years. My main work was helping them to be empowered,” Sepideh said. “I helped girls and women to be empowered by believing in their abilities, accepting and respecting themselves as human and then as women, learning new skills, and ultimately learning how to stand on their own feet.”
As a Client Care Facilitator at GGP, Sepideh has continued to empower her clients. “At GGP, we work with families and women. I help them to believe in themselves and their abilities as women. Helping them in settling in Saskatoon by encouraging them to learn basic or new skills, go to English classes, find a job, and to know their rights as newcomers and women.”
This year, Iranian activists fought to ensure that their government’s treatment of its citizens, particularly women, returned to the international conversation. “In my home country, Iran, women are brave and have been trying to take their basic human rights for many years. They have a lot of struggles with medieval rules and regulations,” Sepideh said. Just off the top of her head, she lists a dozen discriminatory laws, from women being banned from going abroad without their husband’s or father’s permission to the wide range of laws that limit how women dress and act in public. She is proud that Iranians have continued to push back against these laws and her hope for the future is simple: “A better future for all women all around the world, especially Iranian women.”