Réseau québecois d’action pour la santé des femmes

Réseau Québecois d’action pour la santé des femmes (RQASF)

What Happened

In April 2012, as part of the cuts from the 2012 Budget, the government announced the elimination of the Women’s Health Contribution Program (WHCP), which funded six organizations, including RQASF, to conduct research on women’s health. The funds allocated to RQASF through this program are scheduled to terminate by March 31, 2013. The RQASF and the other groups have claimed that women’s ability to advocate for their health is curtailed by the cuts and that the government is dismissing the policy advice these groups offered.


For the past sixteen years, the Women’s Health Contribution Program (WHCP) has supported the advancement of gender equality through policy research and community programs.

The Réseau québécois d’action pour la santé des femmes (RQASF) has been one of the funded organizations, producing research on how government policy might impact women’s health, particularly for marginalized women in immigrant communities, aboriginal women, and those living with disabilities. It has been particularly outspoken on government policy that does not take gender equality into account.

As part of its effort to inform female consumers, RQASF has promoted campaigns for environmentally-safe cosmetics spearheaded by groups such as Environmental Defence and the David Suzuki Foundation, both of which have been under fire from the federal government.

The Réseau’s publications include a 2009 presentation on freedom of expression, offering advice on how to present research findings while avoiding legal actions that might silence outspoken groups.

In April 2012, the federal government’s 2012 Budget introduced cuts to Health Canada, which eliminated WHCP to save an estimated $2.9 million.

The sudden cuts represent a loss of  $370,000, or about 70% of RQASF’s budget, and the Network has indicated that half of its eight-people staff will have to be laid off.

But for Lydya Assayag, director of RQASF, "This loss of funding is not just about a group of women losing their jobs. (...) it's about women losing power to advocate for their own health."

Responding to questions on the cuts, the office of Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq explained in the Winnipeg Free Press that Health Canada was constrained by wider budget cuts imposed on the department, and that the priority has shifted on delivering frontline services rather than conducting research.

It was also mentioned that the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) had $33 million in funding and affected groups were invited to apply.

But the CIHR funds are for clinical research and not about advising the government on policy, claims Anne Rochon Ford, executive-director of the Canadian Women’s Health Network, one of the six affected groups.

She reported in the Toronto Star that “It’s been made very clear to us that they don’t want our policy advice.”

In April 2012 RQASF launched an appeal to the public, calling on supporters to contact their MPs to pressure the government to maintain the program. Months later, the website features a short list of projects that could be supported by donations from the public, including one to disseminate information on menopause and another to raise awareness on discrimination against lesbians.

In October 2012, RQASF and the other affected groups held a national conference in Montreal to discuss the impact of the cuts on women’s health and the importance of research to advise government policy.

In addition to the RQASF, the five other programs losing funding are the Atlantic Centre of Excellence for Women's Health; the British Columbia Centre of Excellence for Women's Health; the Canadian Women's Health Network; the National Network on Environments and Women's Health and the Prairie Women's Health Centre of Excellence.

 

Relevant Dates:

  • April 2012: The government announces cuts to Health Canada in its 2012 Budget, and six groups are notified that the WHCP will be eliminated and their funding will be terminated by March 31, 2013.
  • October 29, 2012: The six affected women organizations hold a national conference in Montreal to discuss the effects of the cuts and the intersection between women’s health research and policy advice.

Role or Position

The Réseau québécois d’action pour la santé des femmes (RQASF) (Quebec Women's Health Action Network, in English), founded in 1977 and independent from industry, reaches an estimated 300, 000 women across Quebec through its network of 150 partners. Taking a feminist approach to women’s health, RQASF provides information and raises awareness among women on mental health, breast cancer, discrimination against lesbians, vaccines and medication. It also takes on a mission of health prevention by addressing the social problem of hyper-sexualization of girls and promoting a healthy body image. A distinctive feature of RQASF's work is that it is guided by research-action; with tight links to women on the ground, the Network's research amplifies their voice and responds to their needs. 

Implications and Consequences

  • Democracy: The government’s trend of withdrawing support for women’s groups, particularly when it comes to socially-relevant research and policy work, undermines not only the country’s commitment to full gender equality, but also the voice of women in public debate. The information that RQASF offered on toxic substances in the environment and cosmetics, and their link to women’s health, for instance, was of great importance to public debate and policy. Especially since that information was completely independent from private interests, like the pharmaceutical industry which in many cases has links to research entities.
  • Freedom of expression: While the government indicated that funding through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) was available for affected groups, the mandate no longer includes policy research and advice, and independent, critical, information such as the one provided by RQASF may no longer be supported.  
  • Equality: Abolishing the Women’s Health Contribution Program (WHCP), and accordingly disabling the work conducted by groups that depended on its funding, disproportionately hurts marginalized women, which were a key demographic of these group’s work. 

Photo from RQASF

Date published: 17 January 2013

Date updated: 15 February 2013
 

Video

Lydya Assayag speaks out: women’s groups are losing their funding, health research is being shut down, access to information is undermined.