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Collins on Human Rights in Canada 22 Apr 1993

THE EARTH TIMES

APRIL 22, 1993

Canada Pushes for Womens Rights: Government helps refugees

BY ASHALI VARMA

Canada has given refugee status to a Saudi Arabian women who claimed she was being persecuted in her country because of her gender.  The action was widely hailed as unprecedented in the in the international community.

The woman, whom Canadian authorities would identify only as Nada in order to protect her identity, arrived in Montreal in 1991 and asked for refugee status.  At that point, immigration officials laughed at her.  Nada claimed that she did not want to follow the strict dictates of Islamic law for women, and she was being persecuted by her countrymen.  The law requires Saudi women to wear veils.  Nada, a feminist, opposed this, and she told Canadian authorities that she was frequently harassed in the streets by men who threw stones at her and spat on her.

Initially, Nada’s refugee claim was not accepted by the Immigration and Refugee Board.  The two male members examining her case said the treatment given her was within the law in Saudi Arabia and did not amount to persecution.  Nada went through two years of appeals, constantly living under the threat of deportation.  She realized that her case was unprecedented and would be a beacon of hope for many women the world over, persecuted in societies that dictated strict behavioral codes for women.

On Jan. 30, 1993, Nada’s perseverance paid off.  Immigration Minister Bernard Valcourt intervened and said that Nada would not be deported and could apply for landed immigration status.  On hearing the news Nada said, “ I am happy the minister is going to look at the whole issue of refugee women and not just my case.”  About her own ordeal she said, “Now, I don’t have to face these things in my mind, hiding and having to lie to people about who I am.  This is my new country.”

Minister Valcourt, in a statement released to the media, said, “I will be convening discussions on gender issues relating to refugee determination and human rights with interested parties.  Given the broad nature of this subject, I will also need to discuss them with my ministerial colleagues, in particular those whose responsibilities relate to the status of women and human rights.  I look to these discussions to help us determine appropriate responses to the complex and inter-related issues of state sanctioned abuse abroad, conjugal violence against women, and assistance to female refugees in times of world crisis.’

Mary Collins, Minister for the Status of Women endorsed the decision of her colleague, Minister Valcourt, saying, “Women everywhere suffer violence and persecution because of their gender  — Minister Valcourt has my personal support and ongoing assistance in working to ensure that women’s rights are addressed as human rights.”

Even though this decision was a first for Canada and the world, Canada has a well established tradition of humanitarian assistance to refugee women.  In 1985, Canada endorsed the UNHCR Resolution that  “women asylum-seekers who face harsh or inhumane treatment due to their having transgressed the social more of the society in which they live may be considered as a “particular social group within  the meaning of their 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention.”

In keeping with its philosophy on the rights of women, Canada has been instrumental in bringing about major changes at the international level as well.

Not directly connected to the immigration concern but significant in the context of gender-related issues was the Canadian Government’s role in bringing about two crucial decisions for women around the world.  One was a Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, adopted by the United Nations Commission on Status of Women in Vienna.  Canada initiated the Declaration which contains a definition of violence and urges governments to prevent and punish such abuses, wherever they occur.

Minister Collins said, “This is a major step a strong signal about the importance that an increasing number of governments now put on this issue and places violence against women within the framework of existence human rights standards.”

The second decision affecting women was a resolution passed by the Commission on Human Rights, “integrating the rights of women into the human rights mechanism of the United Nations.” Canada was responsible for introducing this  resolution at the UN Commission on Human Rights which met in Geneva on March 2, 1993.  This precedent-setting decision was especially significant for human right’s activists as it included the decision to “consider the appointment of a special rapportuer on violence against women.”

In her opening statement, Anne Park, Head of the Canadian Delegation said, “Today, March 8 — International Women’s Day — is also a very listing occasion for the Commission on Human Rights to take some practical steps toward bringing the human rights of women into the mainstream of the human rights system.” She added, “This resolution recognizes that human rights –as set out in the Covenants and related instruments — involve the rights of all humanity, both men and women.

It recognizes, however, that women are susceptible to particular kinds of human rights abuses.  This has become only too clear during this session, when the Commission condemned the abhorrent practice of rape and abuse of women in former Yugoslavia, particularly Muslim women in Bosnia Herzegovina, as a war crime. This sharp reminder of the larger problem of violence against women underscores the need for the Commission to be aware of any such abuses at an early state wherever they may occur.”