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With the increase in separation and divorce in the country, the number of families headed by the females has been on the rise. While there has been a remarkable increase in the number of women attaining professional qualifications and subsequently joining the labor force, it is worrying that poverty is still prevalent among women than men (Cranford, Vosko, & Zukewicz, 2003). This gap is even wider when a woman is divorced or when a woman is left with the responsibility of heading a family. Traditionally, men were known to be the head of the household and thus, were charged with the responsibility of fending and protecting the members of the family. However, with the onset of modernity and increased participation of women in productive activities, women have somewhat been involved in fending for the family, thus easing the load off their husbands. With the increased economic and social empowerment of women in recent times, one would expect that single families headed by women would do better as those headed by single men. This is not the case, as the current reports on the rates of poverty in Canada have consistently demonstrated otherwise. The question that everyone should ask is whether or not the society has done enough to empower women. This paper seeks to highlight the inherent undercurrents of patriarchal structures in our societies that favor men at the expense of women, thus exposing the vulnerability of women when left with the responsibility of raising a family without the assistance of the man.

Canada is ranked among the world’s wealthiest countries. According to the Global Economic Justice Report (2005), the federal government has always reported surpluses in the range of billions and the country “has the lowest debt-to- GDP (Gross Domestic Product) ratio” of all the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD’s) 30 member states. Canada has also been doing well in terms of economic growth as compared to other G-7 countries. Generally, it is reported that wealthy Canadians as well as Canadian corporations have been fairing well even after the economic crisis of 2008. The current estimates put the Canadian corporate pre-tax profit growth rate at 49 percent while the wealthiest Canadians’ market incomes and median net worth growth rate account at 16 percent and 35 percent respectively (Global Economic Justice Report, 2005). However, despite all these riches, poverty is still common in various sectors of the Canadian society. Poverty is widely reported among new immigrants, people with disabilities, aboriginal populations, the aged as well as the single parent families headed by the mothers. It is estimated that the poverty rates among these groups range between 20 and 40 percent (Yalnizyan, 2005). As rich as Canada is, more than 800,000 of its citizens still receive food from any of the 630 food banks across the country every month. More than 1.6 million Canadians still live in unaffordable housing or sub-standard settlement while about 14, 000 of its citizens are homeless (Global Economic Justice Report, 2005).

While these figures are evenly spread out among the vulnerable groups, of particular importance here is the poverty rate in families headed by single mothers. According to Picot & Miles (2005), poverty rate in the single families is estimated at 35.6 percent. However, the poverty levels in the families headed by single women contributed a bigger percentage to this figure. Most reports in Canada in the recent past have shown a great disparity between men and women in terms of risk to poverty. Sauvé (2004) argues that while there has been a remarkable decrease in the income gap between the two groups over the past few decades, he reported that only 13 percent of families headed by men lived in poverty in 2001, compared with 32 percent of single parent families headed by women. Morissette & Picot (2005), on the other hand, report that while the median wage gap has remarkable declined, women in the labor force still earn low wages when compared to men. For instance, in 2004, the women’s wage was only 82 percent of what was earned by men. Morissette & Picot (2005) adds that in 2000, about 22 percent of women workers in Canada received less than $10 per hour in wages compared to 12 percent of male workers doing similar jobs. These figures not only demonstrate the gender disparity in Canadian labor force but also indicate the reasons why single mothers are more at risk of living in poverty than their male counterparts.

Cranford, Vosko, & Zukewicz (2003), argue that the disparity in wages between women and men is as a result of the following factors. Firstly, most women are found in the low paying serving and caring sectors of our economy. Secondly, women earn less than men even when doing the same work as men. Thirdly, women are still dependable for nearly all of the household chores including child rearing and caring, thus are not able to participate fully in the labor force. Lastly, most women engage in non-standard and insecure work arrangements. While these factors may largely be responsible for the current status of women heading single families in Canada, they have been reinforced by the inherent patriarchal structures in the society which empower men at the expense of women. From government policies, to labor force practices to divorce laws in the country, women are generally disadvantaged and therefore, face more risks of living in poverty than men. There is a higher probability to be prone to such risks especially when a woman is heading a single parent family.

Government Policies

According to Yalnizyan (2005), economic and economic social policies have generally discriminated against women. Based on the gender analysis of the Canadian federal budgets in recent times, women are more disadvantaged by a number of policies than the men. For instance, women are negatively affected due to the federal government’s impose limitations on employment insurance eligibility. Only 30 percent of all working Canadian women qualify for such benefits. The National Child Tax Benefit (NCTB’s) claw back from families receiving some form of social assistance has meant that more than 43 percent of single parent families (majority headed by women) cannot enjoy the full benefits as opposed to only 21 percent of two-parent families. In addition, the decrease in the rates of wage replacement for parental leave by 45 percent, has greatly affected mothers who are often the beneficiaries (Yalnizyan, 2005). 

With all these inadequate policies discriminating against women, single parent families headed by women are more at risk of living in poverty than male-headed single parent families. Single mothers face numerous challenges including being the lone provider, securing better housing and finding adequate child care. They also try to seek a balance between education, paid work, and/or community service with household responsibilities (Cranford, Vosko, & Zukewicz, 2003).

Sexism in Canadian Labor Force

Occupational segregation still exists in Canada like in most countries across the world. The jobs held by men and women are distinctly unique. The jobs that women predominate are those that are associated with low pay while those that have high concentration of men are known to be well paying, even though, there may be a small difference in the skill and the educational requirements. Traditionally, men were known to be largely over-represented in the white-collar management jobs, blue-collar industrial jobs, as well as in jobs requiring professional qualification of some sorts. On the other hand, women were known to be over-represented in the low-level administrative and clerical jobs, and in services and sales occupations (Suave, 2004). There has been a remarkable change over the decades as more and more women seek managerial and professional jobs in large numbers. However, there is a noticeable difference between men and women found in the managerial and professional occupations. While most men would be found working in the private sector holding managerial positions in technical fields, well-paid women would be found in the professions associated with ‘serving’ and ‘caring’ such as education, health, and social services largely in the public sector. Morissette & Picot (2005), note that women would most likely work in the public sector or government funded projects than men.   

In a report released by Canadian federal government, it was indicated that while there was a remarkable increase in the number of women holding professional and managerial positions, these positions are largely found in fields traditionally associated with women (Statistics Canada, 2006). These include teaching, health care, clerical, sales and services, and administrative. In addition, majority of the women are still found in the low paying jobs such as food services, child care, among others. Morissette & Picot (2005), note that, in sectors where women are overrepresented, for instance in the public sector, men are still favored over women as they are more likely to assume senior management position. For instance, in the Canadian Public Service, the likelihood that a man would become a senior manager is twice as that of a woman. Picot & Miles (2005), observe that, these disparities continue despite the federal government’s employment equity policies intended to raise the number of women in management positions in the Public Service.

It is worth noting that despite of increased education of women in recent times, the patriarchal structures have continued to lock out women not only from the professional and management occupations, but also in securing well paying jobs. Traditionally, women were known to perform reproductive works such as rearing and caring for the children, household chores, and serving their husbands (Picot & Miles, 2005). From the analysis of women representation in the Canadian labor force, it would not be farfetched to conclude that despite of the federal government’s policies, the hitherto unpaid women gender roles have been transformed into paid occupation. However, they are low-paying as the male dominance in our society has ensured that the true worth of a woman’s work is never recognized. It is important to note that if the same job is done by a man, he would be most likely paid higher than the woman. What this creates is a society where women always play second fiddle to the men, not only out there in the labor market but also in the household. Thus, a woman would find it hard to cope when left with the responsibility of raising a family on her own. In sum, the disparity in wages and the nature of occupations between men and women, clearly demonstrate why single-parent family headed by a man would do better than that headed by a woman.

Divorce Laws and Poverty in Canada

The Canadian divorce laws have contributed significantly to the increase in the number of single families headed by women. The Vanier Institute (2000) observes that child custody has always been an issue in most marriages that are dissolved by courts. For instance, he points that courts have had to decide on the custody of the child in more than 70 percent of the marriages dissolved in recent times. More often, the sole custody of the child is granted to the mother and in some cases where the fathers are granted custody, women would be granted more time with the child. Consequently, majority of Canadian women who dissolve their marriages have also become single parents.

According to the statistics released in 1996 enumerating single parent families, it was estimated that approximately 1.1 million Canadians were single parents. Of these, 58 percent were either divorced or separated, 20 percent had lost their partners, and 22 percent had never been married. Important to note here is the significant number of single women, which was estimated at 83 per cent (The Vanier Institute, 2000). This gender disparity in the number of single families is of great significant since single parent families headed by females are more at risk of experiencing poverty than single parent families headed by males. According to Yalnizyan (2005), in 2004, it was estimated that 35.6 percent of female lone-parent families were living in poverty compared to 14.2 percent of male lone-parent families.

The Vanier Institute (2000) notes that the number of single parent families has increased significantly over the last two decades by almost 250 percent. This is contrasted by the mere 55 percent increase in the overall number of Canadian families. The Vanier Institute (2000) compares the current rise in the single-parent headed household to the rates experienced in the initial half of the twentieth century. For example, in 1931, the figure of single parent families in Canada stood at 13.6 percent compared to 15 percent estimate in 1996. While the rise in the figure of single parent families in the early decades of the last century was instigated mostly by death of one’s partner, the situation in recent time has been a bit different. Single parent families have mainly emerged as a result of non-marriage, separation, and divorce. The Canadian courts have played a key in contributing to the recent surge in the number of single parent families. However, as men have been on the receiving end as far as child custody is concerned, the celebrations by women upon being granted the custody of their children by the courts do not usually last long. In most cases, the women soon realized that they do not have enough income to successfully raise their children. This is attributable to the factors explained above such as low income, biased labor market, increased household chores, and caring for the children, which are aided by the patriarchal structures in our society.

Conclusion

Despite the fact that Canada is one of the wealthiest countries in the world today, poverty is still reported among various groups in its population. Of great concern however, remains to be the poverty levels in single parent families. There exists a significant gender difference in poverty levels among the single parent families. The disparity is believed to be as a result of overrepresentation of women in low paying occupations. In addition, women are still expected to perform most of the household activities including caring for the children, thus reducing their participation in the labor market. However, these factors have been reinforced by patriarchal structures inherent in our societies which have continuously ensured that women are directly dependent on men for their success at home. As demonstrated by the disparity between male and female headed single parent families living in poverty, it would not be farfetched to argue that, despite the strides covered over the decades in ensuring gender equity in all sectors of our lives, the undercurrents of patriarchal societies have refused to go away. 

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