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We Need to Talk About Missing Women All Over the World

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By: Craig and Marc Kielburger

Awa Abge. Hauwa Yirma. Asabe Manu. There are 180 names in total. One hundred and eighty terrified girls held captive in the Nigerian bush for the crime of desiring an education. With hashtags like #BringBackOurGirls, Canadians flooded social media to support the girls and their frantic parents. As the drama unfolds, Nigeria has never been closer to Canadian hearts.

We suspect there's another hashtag trending in the Twittersphere of our Canadian subconscious: #ThankGodNotHere. We assure ourselves that a horror like this could never happen on our shores.

Canadians shouldn't be so quick to assume superiority.

In January, we first revealed in this column the troubling findings of Ottawa researcher, Maryanne Pearce, who has compiled a database of 824 missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada--hundreds more than previously known. Last week, officials of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police quietly admitted that their own files contain almost 1,200 cases of murdered and missing aboriginal women.

Every nation wants to believe that violence against women is everyone else's problem. The girls in Nigeria were abducted April 15. It took a month, and an international outcry, before the Nigerian government finally admitted it was a problem they couldn't handle without international help. Meanwhile, taking aim at Canada, the United Nations and international organizations like Human Rights Watch have repeatedly called on our government to hold a national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women. The Government of Canada has rejected them all, saying it has already done enough on the issue.

From the developing world to the richest of nations, women are still considered expendable, second-rate citizens.

Dig deeper into the current headlines and the sickening stories mount. The so-called "honour killing" of women by their husbands and families in Afghanistan is rising. Police in Paris allegedly raped a Canadian tourist. Rebels in the forgotten crisis in the Central African Republic rape and murder women with relative impunity.

And it's not just about high profile atrocities. When was the last time media talked about the missing women of Asia? Over a decade ago researchers discovered that, in countries like China, India, and South Korea, men outnumber women by a significant margin. Male children are more valued, leading to trafficking and selective births. Girls have higher mortality rates because of abuse, and because they are given less nutrition and health care. It is estimated there are at least 100 million women "missing" from those societies.

The problem isn't laws. Rape and murder are illegal nearly everywhere, and many nations have specific laws addressing violence against women. But when it comes to enforcing those laws, those bodies that should protect women--police, and courts--seem indifferent. In Canada, we hold the rule of law to be sacred. Yet even here, cases like Robert Pickton--believed to have committed 49 murders, but convicted for only six--reveal that vulnerable women like aboriginals, sex trade workers, and women living on the street are often at the back of the line when it comes to prioritizing crimes. In March, Americans were stunned to learn that 400,000 rape kits--some dating back to the 1980s--were sitting unprocessed in warehouses. That's 400,000 women denied justice because the criminal justice system didn't consider their sexual assaults to be a priority.

Last fall, the UN passed another resolution calling for greater protection for women in conflicts. Yet according to Amnesty International, only three per cent of all UN peacekeepers active today are women. Less than half of all current UN peacekeeping missions have a gender advisor to ensure the protection of women is a priority.

Research shows people often can't identify with a problem until it has a face and a name. Twelve thousand missing and murdered women is just a statistic. That's why the Native Women's Association of Canada tells the stories of missing and murdered women. What would happen if every newspaper in Canada ran one of these stories on the front page, every week for a year? It would take 23 years to tell the stories of all 1,200 missing women.

What if every week we heard the stories of girls like Maisy Odjik and Shannon Alexander? Their disappearance from a Quebec reserve in 2008 received less police attention than the disappearance of a local lion cub. Or Danita Big Eagle, a teenage mother who was determined to break her drug addiction and go back to school when she vanished from Regina in 2007. For weeks police refused to investigate, telling Danita's mother that the girl was probably just "out partying."

Hauwa, Asabe, Maisy, Danita--every abduction, every assault, is not a statistic. It's a name. It's a story. It's a life destroyed and a family shattered. Learn the names behind the statistics, and perhaps we can finally confront the crisis of violence against women--not just in Nigeria, but here in our own society.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit www.weday.com.

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