For many women Feb. 14 each year means boxes of chocolate and dinner with their special someone. But for thousands, Feb. 14 is set aside as a day to remember the hundreds of missing and murdered Native American and First Nations women. Every year, hundreds of Native women go missing. Most of them are kidnapped near or on Native land. Some of the women are lead to believe they will find better lives in the big cites. Most of these women will be sold into the international sex trade. Others will be raped, murdered, or left for dead. The Native women who escape and survive will live with pain and fear caused by their attackers. The ones who lost their lives are remembered in the hearts of the communities that they are from. The pain this issue has caused is leaving a deep wound in the hearts of the Native American community.
In March 2010, the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC) created a database of information they gathered covering 582 cases of missing and murder native women and girls. They found that 67 percent are murder cases meaning "death as the result of homicide or negligence." Also they found that 20 percent are cases of missing women and girls, and four percent are cases of suspicious death. The NWAC's research goes on to show that between the years 2000 and 2008, Native women and girls make up around 10 percent of all female homicides in Canada. However Native women are less than three percent of the total female population. Most of these cases are Native women and girls under the age of 30.
The study showed that Native women are three times more likely to be killed by a stranger then non-Native women. Native women also face the harsh reality at home on the reservations. Some are victims of domestic abuse.
According to a survey done by Statistics Canada, 12.6 percent of Native women reported domestic abuse, when non-Natives are at 3.5 percent. It goes on to show that three times as many Native women say they have been threatened, five times as many reported a sexual assault, and seven times as many say they suffered from physical abuse than their non-Native peers.
But the issues are complex and not exclusive. Sherry Lewis, the executive director of the NWAC, when asked why there wasn't more focus on domestic abuse, she said, "We didn't want to just look at domestic violence, because it's not just Native men beating Native women."
Last year Amnesty International began working with the Native communities and the NWAC on reporting cases, as well as identifying the reasons so many Native women go missing. For example, Native people suffer from the highest levels of unemployment and poverty rates, making living conditions hard on families. In addition, drugs, gang violence, and alcoholism on reservations make young Native women and girls easy prey for sex traffickers to get them into drugs and prostitution.
The media plays a role in this by fetishizing Native women. Posing women - usually non-Native - in stereotypical costuming in overly sexualized manners creates an allure of exoticness. In turn, these images dehumanize Native women.
At the same time, media outlets in the United States and Canada rarely report on the issues of violence and profiteering off of the sex trade, which adds to the rampant racism and neglect towards the Native community.
Native women are speaking out about this issue. They have been organizing rallies, marches, and teach-ins to spread the word, as well as women warrior camps, where Native women learn self-defense. Native women are also forming connections to other organizations and movements for support.
This Feb. 14 the public is urged to attend a Memorial March for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Activists, including union members, will join thousands of other women, men and family members in marches and vigils to remember and honor the missing and murdered women. "On February 14, our compassion must be rooted in action. When we walk in support of missing and murdered women, we proclaim that violence against women is unacceptable," Paul Meinema, national president of United Food and Commercial Workers Canada.
If you can't make it to a march, follow the actions through the hashtags #MMIW and #Feb14Justice, or participate in the UFCW's digital march.
For the loved ones we have lost, your story will be told. This story is dedicated to you.
Photo: Demonstrators march in Vancouver, Feb. 14, 2010, for the 19th annual Women's Memorial March. (CC)