Joe Gunn

December 12, 2011

"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
Those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shone."

Isaiah 9.2-4

As I re-read the Scripture that recounted that first Christmas, it occurred to me that women and their particular needs are often forgotten. On women, and their particular concerns, a light had not yet shone.

A male authority, Caesar Augustus, decided "all the world should be registered." Mary "belonged" to the family of her betrothed, the carpenter Joseph, and so had to travel to his hometown to be counted. No one bothered to ask a humble pregnant woman if an exhausting trip was in her own plan or her best interest - she simply had to go.

We can assume that Mary would have never hoped to give birth to her son in a stable so far from her family. The account does not describe any presence of physicians or midwives (other women) to comfort her and coach her first birth. The early visitors, local shepherds and three kings who seemed all to be male, arrived only in time to see a newborn lying in a manger, the place from where animals eat.

When Mary was fit to travel, the young family was forced to flee to exile in Egypt. Just like refugees today, in their dash to safety they left everything behind that a family needed to establish a household.


Tragically, women are still forgotten in the midst of current Canadian social problems.

On Nov. 24, at a breakfast in the parliamentary restaurant, five women presented the 2011 Report Card on Child and Family Poverty in Canada. Nearly one in 10 persons, including one in 10 children, live in poverty - despite the unanimous 1989 resolution in the House of Commons which promised to end child poverty by the year 2000.

Seven out of 10 provinces have, or will soon have, a poverty reduction strategy - but not Alberta, British Columbia or Saskatchewan.

Laurel Rothman of Campaign 2000 pointed out that most low-income children (63 per cent) live in two-parent families. However, the current "poverty line" for one parent and one child in a Canadian city larger than 500,000 is $22,240.

If we do the math, any parent working full time at minimum wage in any province would earn something over $19,000. This explains why about one in three low-income children has at least one parent working full time, but is still living in poverty.

These parents seem to be doing everything right, but can't get jobs with sufficient pay, reasonable hours of work and decent benefits that would move them above the poverty line. Since women still earn less on average than men and often work fewer hours due to responsibilities for family care, it is no wonder that 56 per cent of Canadian adults with low incomes are women.

Women living in poverty are highly vulnerable to violence and abuse. More than 100,000 women and children leave their homes in Canada each year to live in emergency shelters.

Abuse, rather than poverty, is the leading cause of women's homelessness in our country, but low-income women have fewer options and less economic autonomy.

They may be forced to stay in a dangerous situation, rather than move to one of Canada's 569 shelters.

Low-income women on the street live with a greater risk of physical, emotional and psychological harm, according to the YWCA's Rose Campaign against violence towards women. It is estimated that the annual cost of intimate partner violence against women in Canada is an astounding $6.9 billion - but who can measure the emotional, psychological and spiritual damage?


Certain sectors experience poverty differently. Poverty in Canada is "ghettoized" among racialized communities, people new to this country during the last decade, those with a disability and aboriginal people, for example.

Newcomer women to Canada have their employment prospects minimalized when cutbacks end the provision of language training. Soon more than half of the girls incarcerated in our country will be aboriginal.

The Native Women's Association in Canada reports that 90 per cent of girls in jail have suffered violence. Still today, more than half of female lone mothers with children under six live in poverty.

Our economic, societal and immigration systems were never constructed with women's needs and aspirations in mind. This Advent let us resolve to shine a light on this fact, and give birth to a better tomorrow.

(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice,, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)

Letter to the Editor - 12/26/11