08 March 2007
by Lisa Abel
Ottawa-based lawyer Jacqueline Huston left her full-time private practice in 2003 to spend a year in the South Pacific country of Kiribati.
It wasn't a beach-side sabbatical. Her 15-month stay, organized through Voluntary Service Overseas Canada, put her legal skills to work at the Kiribati Office of the People's Lawyer.
Huston is one of millions of Canadian women who volunteer domestically and internationally. Marlene Deboisbriand, president of Volunteer Canada, says their contributions have been important to our social safety net.
"Some of our most fundamental government programs were started as programs that were tried in the voluntary sector and were heavily implemented or developed by women as volunteers.
"It's a huge contribution."
VSO Canada matches volunteers to placements that meet the needs of overseas partners. On the Kiribati islands, Huston saw women with access to education and jobs, but were facing other challenges.
"Women have a very significant role in the Kiribati culture. In traditional life, the village is run by a council of old men and a council of old women. Elderly people are greatly respected and old women have the same kind of respect as the old men.
"On the other hand, there are issues that affect women negatively."
Huston represented many Kiribati women in domestic abuse cases and advocated for women's rights in the workplace; the mandatory retirement age there is 50.
Huston is now a part-time professor at the University of Ottawa and co-manager of student services for the faculty of law. She continues to volunteer on the boards and committees of St. Mary's Home, the David Smith Centre and Youth Services Bureau.
International Women's Day gives Huston pause to reflect on the situation of women in Canada and other countries.
"I'm not saying it's all perfect in Canada. There are many issues to be dealt with and battles still to fight."