Is there a leadership void in the women’s movement in Canada? (Part II)

By: Efrat Shemesh

Local and national organizations in Canada seem to be disengaged from the annual global campaigns taking place during the period of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. In this blog post, I argue that this lack of participation might be due to the lack of leadership in the women’s movement in Canada.

Violence against women is a global black mark against our society. To highlight the need for public awareness of this problem, the United Nations designated November 25th the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.  This day also marks the first day of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence. Parallel campaigns take place  around the world, such as 12 Days of Action for the Elimination of Violence Against Women in Quebec. December 6 in Quebec – the anniversary of the École Polytechnique de Montréal Massacre – has been designated as a day of remembrance and action on violence against women.

Many of the organizations that Universalia works with have made it clear that they support gender equality and make efforts to mainstream gender equality within their organization.  Violence against women, in all its forms, is one of the metrics that indicate whether progress is being made with respect to equality between the sexes.  As part of my ongoing research on women’s organizations in Quebec and Canada, I reviewed a sample of women organizations’ responses to the global campaign to eradicate violence against women, as a proxy for better understanding the performance of these organizations on dimensions of gender equality and equity.

“How are local Montreal organizations responding to the campaigns to eliminate violence against women?”

In order to answer this question I have analyzed the websites of 17 organizations that state as one of their objectives that they are pursuing gender equality and serving women in Montreal. I had been following some of these organizations for the previous few months.  Of note, I did not find any mention of the 16 Days of Activism nor did I find any organization that was planning an event or activity in support of this worldwide campaign.

As mentioned above, Quebec organizations have integrated the international day to eradicate VAW with province-wide commemorations of the violent attack that befell the École Polytechnique on December 6th, 1989, killing 14 women and wounding several others. One of the purposes of this commemoration, according to my reading of it, is to encourage all Canadians to reflect on the phenomenon of violence against women and think of concrete actions to eliminate this scourge.  However, of the 12 Quebec-based advocacy organizations I  examined, only four  provided information about the province-wide 12 Days campaign and only one ran a related campaign in 2013 (although it is not clear whether  the its timing of this campaign was related to the 12 days campaign or not). The official 12 Days campaign website ( provides information the campaign.[1] A review of the website reveals that most events throughout this week are run by local organizations in Quebec.

I then reviewed the websites of national organizations to see if they are different from what I found in Quebec.  At the national level, I analyzed 19 organizations’ websites, including the Status of Women Canada website.   To my surprise I found similar results.  In general there were relatively few campaigns to support the international or the Quebec campaign to highlight violence against women.  There was one notable exception. The Status of Women Canada website does include information about the 16 Days of Activism. In addition, a message from Minister Kellie Leitch calls Canadians to participate in those days: “By observing a minute of silence, wearing a white ribbon, or attending a local vigil – you can join thousands of Canadians in an effort to end violence against women and girls. Ending violence against women and girls is everyone’s responsibility. By working together, we can make our communities safer.”

The purpose of these campaigns is to “raise awareness about gender-based violence as a human rights issue at the local, national, regional and international level” (  These campaigns are globally publicized and promoted by major international organizations[2], however local and national organizations have seemingly ignored the campaigns, judging by the content of their websites.  These campaigns are meant to support an important performance area for women’s organizations, gender equality and equity, so why are they being ignored?


One possibility is that there might be a leadership void.  The women’s movement requires an array of organizational leaders to focus on changing the ideas and behaviours that lead to violence against women.  Engaging in campaigns that advocate for key gender equality issues such as stopping violence against women is a key leadership activity.

Over the past decade, as a result of major government cutbacks, we know that women’s organizations have struggled with financial challenges. In some cases the conditions of their funding agreements  prohibit them from doing any advocacy work.  This may have changed the focus of some leaders from “how to be an advocate for women`s human rights”  to merely “how to survive as an organization” .  This begets the question, “who will lead the struggle to end violence against women in Canada?”  Leadership is a key strategic issue in any organization, network or movement.  Is there a leadership void in the women`s human rights movement in Canada?

I have no doubt that the organizations that I have been following would like to do more in order to eliminate gender-based violence. I mentioned in my previous post that to be effective at addressing violence against women, governments and organizations need to address  “the root causes of the problem” [3]. The Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women suggests that to “engage[e] the public in education, advocacy and campaigning to raise awareness” is part of creating a way to address those root causes. Resources and leadership are key factors  leading to improved performance —the issue is who will provide them?

[1] The site is in French only.

[2] Amnesty International, Nobel Women’s Initiative, Oxfam, Peace Women, UN Women,

[3] Source: “Violence against Women in Canada”, a fact sheet from the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women, titled “Violence against Women in Canada”

Image courtesy of Flickr/K. Sawyer Photography



Efrat Shemesh Idelson, LL.B, LL.M, is a research fellow at the Universalia Management Group. She is currently conducting research on the characteristics of organizations that serve women in Quebec and Canada. More particularly, she is interested in the emphasis these organizations place on women’s rights.

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