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women's rights

Queen's University economics major Hana Dhanani is the Canadian delegate to the G(irls)20 Summit in Paris, a meeting of 21 young women from around the world held before the G20 leaders meet.Tim Fraser/The Globe and Mail

They apparently have a high quality of health, laws that protect them from domestic violence and better job opportunities than their global counterparts. A bounty of freedoms and opportunities makes Canada the most women-friendly G20 country, according to a poll released Tuesday of 370 gender experts around the world.

But a leading Canadian gender-equality expert says the country's top ranking is proof of a lasting misconception of the status of women within its borders, which has actually been steadily declining since the late nineties.

The poll asked those at NGOs, journalists, lawyers, academics and other gender experts to rank the best and worst G20 countries for women (the European Union is on the G20, but was excluded from the poll) in six categories: workplace opportunities, access to resources, participation in politics, quality of health, freedom from violence, and freedom from trafficking and slavery. The report was released a week before the next G20 summit in Mexico.

Canada ranked first overall followed by Germany, the United Kingdom and Australia. Saudi Arabia and India sat at the bottom of the list for their high rates of sexual slavery, domestic violence and unequal division of domestic labour.

The poll was conducted by TrustLaw, a news service operated by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. The foundation is the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, The Globe and Mail's owner.

While Canada maintains a sterling reputation in the eyes of global gender experts, Kathleen Lahey, a Queen's University law professor who has reported on gender equality to Parliamentary Finance committees and Status of Women committees, says it has a long way to go.

"Canada is particularly prone to be seen through a mythical lens," says Dr. Lahey, because it was ranked in first place on the United Nations' development index from 1995 to 1999. Since then, Canada's ranking has dropped.

The United Nations' Gender Inequality Index, which considers data such as participation in the workforce, secondary education and maternal mortality, ranked Canada 20th in the world in 2011 – behind many European countries as well as Singapore, Japan, South Korea and the Czech Republic.

"On no indicator have women moved forward in Canada," Dr. Lahey said.

According to Statistics Canada, women make 68.3 per cent what their male counterparts with the same education do. Dr. Lahey said the wage gap was smaller more than two decades ago. In 1990, women made 69.2 per cent of what men did.

Canada came in second in the political participation category for the TrustLaw poll, though it ranks 39th in the world for percentage of women in parliament at 24.7 per cent, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

"Canada doesn't do as well as you might expect them to do," said William Orme, a New York-based spokesman for the United Nations Human Development Report. "The percentages [of women in parliament] are much, much higher and have been higher for some time in the Nordic countries and a few other places."

While Dr. Lahey said that at least in Canada's case, the poll promoted popular but inaccurate perceptions, Monique Villa – the chief executive officer of the Thomson Reuters Foundation – said it conquered others.

"One of the things that strikes me in that poll is that you have in the G20 four countries where you have the woman as head of state or prime minister. It is interesting that it was Germany, Argentina, Australia and Brazil. The perception of society is that these countries are very progressive," she said.

But in Germany, she points out, few women are on boards of corporations; in Brazil, only 9 per cent of MPs are women.

The TrustLaw poll ranked the United States in sixth place overall – below Canada, Germany, the U.K., Australia and France – due in part to the recently reignited reproductive rights debate and lack of access to affordable health care, said Ms. Villa.

Terry O'Neill, president of the Washington-based National Organization for Women, points out the U.S. is one of only seven countries that hasn't ratified the UN's Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

"I'm just surprised to see the U.S. is ranked as high as it was," she said.

Quality of health

In this category, respondents considered access to health care and proper nutrition as well as rates of HIV/AIDS. They also looked at maternal mortality rates and reproductive rights, which contributed to the U.S.'s sixth-place ranking. The U.S.'s maternal mortality ratio according to the United Nations' Gender Inequality Index was 24 per 100,000 live births in 2008, higher than almost all the 47 most-developed countries. Canada's was 12 per 100,000 that same year.

One women dies every hour in childbirth in Indonesia.

Participation in politics

Respondents considered both voting rights and representation by women in government. While Germany, Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia rounded out the top five, the percentage of women in their lower or single houses of parliament are lower than other G20 members – Argentina and South Africa – according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

13.6 per cent of seats in Russia's lower house of parliament are held by women.

11 per cent of seats in Japan's lower house of parliament are held by women.

Access to resources

Rank was determined by women's access to education, the equal division of labour in a household and rights related to land, property and inheritance. In Saudi Arabia, which ranked last, men have the right to twice the inheritance women can collect, according to the United Nations.

3 times more hours spent by women on housework in Italy than men.

3.8 million Turkish women are illiterate.

Freedom from trafficking and slavery

This ranking was determined by perceptions of rates of unpaid labour, sexual slavery and domestic servitude. In Russia, which ranked third-last, up to 57,750 people are trafficked from the country each year, according to the United Nations Development Programme.

44.5 per cent of women in India are married before they are 18 years old.

250,000 children were estimated to be involved with prostitution in Brazil last year.

Freedom from violence

Respondents were told to keep in mind the wide spectrum of violent acts against women, such as sexual assault, sexual harassment, domestic violence and conflict violence, but also cultural or religious traditions such as child marriage, female infanticide, female genital cutting and acid attacks. They also considered a woman's access to justice if she is raped.

22 women in India were killed each day due to dowry-related disputes in 2007.

Workplace opportunities

Those polled considered discrimination in the work place, gender wage gaps, maternity-leave rights, representation in management positions and access to affordable child care. In Saudi Arabia, which ranked lowest, women and men had nearly equal rates of at least secondary education, but only 21.2 per cent of women participated in the workforce, compared to 57.9 per cent of men, according to the United Nations Gender Inequality Index.

21.6 per cent gender pay gap for full-time workers in Germany.

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