“We Can’t Go Back To The Way Things Were”

Andrea Gunraj, Vice President of Public Engagement for the Canadian Women’s Foundation, speaks quickly and forcibly, an author and a lightning rod for the urgency of her cause: gender equality, both in the work force and in our homes. Begun in 1991 by a consortium of feminist philanthropists and pioneers, the Canadian Women’s Foundation has fought tirelessly for empowering girls, inclusive leadership, and ending the cycles of violence and poverty, for all women, including, of course, members of their LGBTQ+ family. We caught up with Gunraj as she plotted our way out of the pandemic and into justice, and equal rights.
  • kind: What gear has the Canadian Women’s Foundation had to find to address equality in the time of COVID-19?

    AG: The pandemic has brought a lot of cracks to the light in the way our systems and communities work and it’s clear our gains over the past 30 years are at risk.

  • kind: Like what?

    AG: The women’s labour force is at a record low and gender-based violence is potentially on the rise and we’re seeing greater risk among marginalized women—racialized women and women with disabilities, for instance—unequally impacted by the pandemic. And by the way, this isn’t just a Canadian situation. The global pandemic is hitting women harder than men.

  • kind: What can we do?

    AG: Increase gender equality. And it’s up to Canada to push the envelope, we need policy—now—to show the world what gender equality looks like.

  • kind: Gender equality is something everyone agrees on, but it’s harder to put into practice. What does it look like to you on the ground?

    AG: We give money across a great variety of organizations in our communities doing great work, but only a slice of them focus on women, and by that of course I include trans people, and non-binary people. So what we ask for is people to give their time and talent to organizations that focus on women and girls. You have to understand: a lot of talk around recovery from our decision makers, particularly federally, doesn’t directly do enough for gender equality. I’m talking about a national childcare plan, a national action plan on gender-based violence, modernizing EI and making in-roads towards a basic income, for everybody.

  • kind: Aren’t we currently doing this?

    AG: We are, but if you don’t apply it through the gender lens, women tend not to get the benefits, and that’s the case for everything. And this is something for our leaders to consider right now as they canvas the country for votes: what are you doing for gender equality? This is important for everyone because never forget that when women do well, everyone does well.

  • kind: I think you see that now in the COVID-19 responses in women-led countries like Germany, New Zealand and Finland versus the number of cases in countries like India, Italy, Britain, and of course, the Trump-led US.

    AG: I think accountability is important and it’s not a partisan issue. Leaders reflect what their communities prioritize.

  • kind: How dire are the current pandemic crises?

    AG: Let’s not blame the pandemic for our problems. It shows the cracks that are already there, just intensified. I’d love to say our problems are the virus, but we’ve been on a negative tract and any gains we’ve seen reverse because the gains aren’t deep enough. When they’re deep, they’re shockproof. We need a shockproof mentality so we’re strong, tomorrow, and a hundred years from now. We can’t go back to the way things were.

  • kind: It’s a gift getting to speak to you and share your message. What brought you to your work?

    AG: I had vulnerabilities in my family and my community and from a young age I thought about how to make things better for women. My family is from Guyana and I have intersecting vulnerabilities, being from an immigrant family and a woman of colour, I’ve experienced life through a focus on gender. I do, however, think it’s important to mention that I’ve had great examples of powerful women in my life, but also wonderful men doing great things. Everyone needs to fight for gender equality—from there we move forward.

  • kind: Where are we currently, as a country with regards to our treatment of women and girls?

    AG: People don’t want to see violence, but violence is high: one in two women experience some kind of sexual violence; every six days a woman is killed by her intimate partner. We’ve always had an emergency, but knowing this I still believe in the power of systemic change.

  • kind: Ok, so help us turn this around. How do we get out of this trauma?

    AG: We’re at a special moment—it’s in times of crises where we prove ourselves.

  • kind: Be specific.

    AG: The gender pay gap is improving at a glacial pace. And though we’ve seen greater recognition of gender abuse and sexual harassment, led by feminists, women’s organizations and activists sounding the alarm, every other violent crime is statistically going down while sexual violence has flatlined. This is where we need dire change.

  • kind: In the midst of the struggle, what heartens you about the journey?

    AG: The things people are doing to promote equality. Look at the anti-black racism movement and the call to raise our voices that applies to all communities. You can hear their voice in the street.

  • kind: Give us your instruction manual, before we sign off, for a more civil world.

    AG: There’s a lot to feel positive and excited about, but it doesn’t necessarily come from the people in power, it’s people raising their voices from the margins—that’s where the excitement is. We all need to listen and pay attention to them. They know the answers because they live it every day and I feel positive and hopeful because of the work they do. I just wish they didn’t have to work so damned hard.