Vulnerable women need our attention

NANAIMO – Number of missing or murdered indigenous women tops 1,100 in Canada.

Hashtag Bring Back Our Girls.

That was the social media search term that united the campaign to have the Western world step in to Nigeria’s social problems after one of the country’s chief terrorists claimed to have abducted more than 300 schoolgirls last week.

Ordinary folks, celebrities and activists – even the First Lady of the U.S. – snapped photos of themselves holding hand-written signs to Bring Back Our Girls. It was one of the increasingly rare instances of social media campaigning to bring about social change, rather than its usual role as spreader of cat photos and viral videos.

The campaign highlighted the plight of hundreds of thousands of women in Nigeria who face discrimination based on their gender. They are often barred from education and forced into marriage at an early age, without their consent. The terrorist group Boko Haram’s boasting of kidnapping girls as young as 12 and selling them in marriage (read: slavery) made stomachs turn, although it’s a common practice throughout the world as female children are married to older men as social mores or religious practice often dictates. The only difference this time is that someone bragged about it, rather than talking in whispers.

Perhaps with Boko Haram’s boast, social norms in Nigeria will change, with the help of sanctions from the West, or worse – military intervention.

Sadly, other countries in the world also suffer from gender discrimination like that of the women in Nigeria. One country’s national police force confirmed that the reports of homicide and unresolved missing aboriginal women topped 1,100 in a 30-year period. These cases are largely unsolved, with no clear plan as to how to stop indigenous women from being targeted for violence.

That country – Canada.

The Aboriginal Peoples Television Network broke the story this month that the RCMP confirmed through talks with detachments and police forces across the country that more than 1,100 indigenous women were the victims of homicide or simply disappeared with without a trace or investigation.

It came as little shock to people who work with vulnerable women in some of Canada’s poorest neighbourhoods, like Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. That was the hunting ground for the country’s most prolific and notorious serial killer – who was able to work with little risk of detection because so many of the women on whom he preyed were drug addicts, prostitutes or both and considered by society to be disposable.

Hopefully, that attitude is changing, and these 1,100 missing or murdered indigenous women will be found, or their stories at least concluded to give their families some kind of closure.

I covered a manslaughter trial in Nanaimo about eight years ago in which the judge gave the harsher sentence at his disposal. The convicted man pleaded guilty to killing his cocaine dealer, a woman estranged from her father back east. The judge said that just because she was a drug addict and a dealer didn’t make the crime any less reprehensible – the woman’s father grieved, and her death meant something to someone.

If more people viewed humanity the way that judge did, we wouldn’t see the junkie on the street – we’d see the brother and father. We wouldn’t see the prostitute; we’d see the sister and mother. We wouldn’t get wrapped up in what Kim Kardashian is wearing to her third wedding; we’d worry about the people without shoes in the middle of winter.

The outpouring of emotion and repulsion at Boko Haram’s crimes will help some of the women in Nigeria realize their goals of safely attending school and graduating with an education. But as attention is turned to the international community, let’s not forget about the community in which we live. Just as much as Nigeria, Canada also needs to Bring Back Our Girls.