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Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland speaks to the media in Hamilton, Ont., during the Liberal Cabinet retreat, on Jan. 24. Leading international aid agencies in Canada are asking Freeland to increase the country’s foreign assistance contributions.NICK IWANYSHYN/The Canadian Press

The Liberal government’s feminist assistance agenda will not live up to its ambition unless Ottawa increases its foreign aid spending, according to international development experts who run programs around the world.

The government’s feminist international assistance policy, which was unveiled in 2017, has been lauded by international development organizations for putting women and girls at the front and centre of programs. But leaders in the sector say they are concerned there will not be enough funding for their work in the government’s approaching budget, which is expected to be tabled in the coming weeks.

Diana Sarosi, director of policy and campaigns at Oxfam Canada, said one of her organization’s programs focused on supporting women’s rights and eliminating gender-based violence has already ended, even though it is a key pillar of the government’s feminist international assistance program. Other programs are also set to end, she added.

“Losing this stream of funding has a huge impact on women’s rights organizations around the world, and that’s really at the heart of this matter,” she said. While Ms. Sarosi commended the government for saying it would prioritize funding for women’s rights organizations, she said it has not translated into the kind of funding they hoped for.

She said a lot of organizations that Oxfam Canada works alongside provide life-saving services for women and gender-diverse people, and so without having sustainable funding, they have to make tough choices.

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“What that means is, girls don’t have access to sexual and reproductive health and rights, for example, we once again see a rise in teen pregnancies and unsafe abortions. So, it has a real impact on the ground of whether these organizations can provide these life-saving services or not.”

Last week, 77 aid organizations wrote an open letter to Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, urging the government to increase international assistance beyond last year’s $8.15-billion and to commit to a predictable three-year-boost to reach $10-billion by 2025. Adrienne Vaupshas, a spokesperson for Ms. Freeland, said the government launched its prebudget consultations in December inviting all Canadians, including international aid organizations, to share their ideas.

Ms. Sarosi said international assistance is also a matter of security. “One of the biggest predictors of how stable and prosperous a country is, is their level of gender equality. So, it is really a security issue, but it’s not perceived as that.”

Pascal Paradis, the chief executive officer of Lawyers Without Borders, said because of support from the Canadian government, his organization has been able to help local groups around the world support victims of human-rights violations and fight gender-based violence.

“The feminist policy for us was a great moment for Canada’s trajectory with international aid. It fell squarely within what is our core mission,” he said, adding that now some programs are facing uncertainty. He said it’s not clear whether funding will be renewed for important programs in Colombia and Haiti.

Mr. Paradis said his organization works on long-term endeavors, which require predictable and sustainable funding – and right now, it’s hard to have long-term commitments from Canada. Lawyers Without Borders works with people, particularly women, who have faced grave human-rights violations. They’re represented by local lawyers, and often female lawyers, he said, with his organization providing support.

“If you withdraw the support, the capacity is not the same ... and you are also jeopardizing the gains that have been made. And when there is a rollback of human rights, of the rule of law, of access to justice of democracy there, it will quite often have an impact here at home too.”

Julia Anderson, the chief executive officer of the Canadian Partnership for Women and Children’s Health, which partners with more than 100 organizations that work globally on women and children’s health issues, said previous international assistance policies had targeted and engaged women, but the feminist international assistance policy brought that work to the next level.

She said some of the programming has had the ability to shift the lived realities of women. But that kind of transformation does not happen overnight, she said, and needs sustained funding

“You simply can’t put out that kind of ambition and then not resource it. At that point, it’s just rhetoric.”

Rachel Pulfer, executive director of Journalists for Human Rights, said that through its largest program, JHR works with media partners to empower women to take on leadership positions in newsrooms. She said those women then work with their colleagues to produce stories that include female perspectives.

“What we try to do is ensure that those voices are centred in stories about women’s issues and human-rights issues that affect women and girls disproportionately, and we’ve had huge success,” she said.

In Kenya, for example, journalists gave women and girls a platform to talk about what it was like to endure months of lockdowns, and subsequently domestic violence and teen pregnancy.

“A lot of these women, they get pregnant and they would just drop out of school. There was no provision for school daycares or let alone all the stigma and attitudinal issues. And as a result of that coverage, we saw some private schools being set up in Kenya in order to meet the needs of teenage mothers.”

Ms. Pulfer, like leaders at other aid organizations, said she’s concerned those programs are at risk.

Were they to end, “it would be a real shame given the fragility of the kind of space that we’ve worked so hard to earn for women in these media environments.”

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