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Canada walks the talk on global women’s rights

Jess Tomlin is the president and CEO of the MATCH International Women's Fund and Rachel Vincent is the advocacy director for the Nobel Women's Initiative. Both organizations are based in Ottawa.

When the Liberals took power in 2015, women around the globe celebrated as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared himself a feminist and promised a feminist foreign policy. However, after February's federal budget offered no new money for advancing women's rights globally, that gushing admiration faded as many began to doubt that this government could move beyond photo-op feminism.

That doubt was tackled head-on with a game-changing announcement on June 9: $150-million over five years to women's organizations in the Global South.

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On the same week that the federal government laid out a plan to increase the defence budget by a whopping 70 per cent over the next decade – to $32.7-billion – it may seem naive to be giving a high-five to the Prime Minister for a mere $150-million over five years. After all, that sum barely covers the cost of one Super Hornet fighter jet.

Related: Ottawa unveils new feminist foreign-aid policy

Yet in the world of women's rights, a movement that is chronically underfunded and regularly being told to do more with less, this signals a major shift. It also puts Canada out in front of a very small pack of countries who walk the talk on women's rights.

In 2008, the Netherlands created a groundbreaking fund for women's rights – and that money has moved the goal post in countries where women raising their voices to demand rights are at risk of backlash, sexual violence and even death. When U.S. President Donald Trump announced in January the global gag rule, effectively cutting off U.S. money for abortion services in the Global South, Canada quickly joined the Netherlands and other countries to meet the global funding gap.

Canada is now making the single largest contribution in bilateral funding to women's rights organizations. And the reaction from the international community has been swift and positive.

But doesn't Canada already fund women's organizations? Not really. According to the most recent data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, only 0.3 per cent of Canada's international assistance (or $1.7-million) in 2013 actually reached women. This, despite a growing body of evidence indicates that funding women at the local level is the single most important way to create change in communities.

This week's funding announcement is designed to create a culture shift in the Canadian government, so that women are seen not as passive beneficiaries but rather as powerful partners for change.

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Delivering more money directly into the hands of women on the front lines, and inviting women to set the agenda for how best to use it, is welcome and urgent.

From Syria and Yemen to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan, women and girls are paddling hard against the current of increasingly oppressive geopolitical contexts and escalating conflicts. The stakes are high and while we welcome this initial investment, we know that so much more is needed.

Advancing women's rights will not only require even more financial investment, but also greater political support for women community leaders. These are the women who are lobbying to pass new anti-discriminatory legislation, working to mitigate the damaging impact of climate change and trying to end wars.

Leymah Gbowee, a Nobel Peace laureate from Liberia, is but one example. She led a movement of women who faced off against former Liberian president Charles Taylor and locked arms to block the exit of a hotel where fruitless peace talks were taking place. These women succeeded in forcing the warring parties to sign a peace agreement. Canada's assistance policy should honour them, and provide women leaders with cover and credibility as they put their lives at risk in unstable and dangerous places.

The world will be more secure and more prosperous when gender equality is front and centre in foreign policy. We are not there yet, but we can feel good that Canada has started to give women on the front lines their rightful seat at the table.

Jess Tomlin is the president and CEO of the MATCH International Women's Fund and Rachel Vincent is the advocacy director for the Nobel Women's Initiative. Both organizations are based in Ottawa.

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Video: New foreign aid policy focuses on women (The Canadian Press)
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