This post is dedicated to commemorating the more than 600 missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls in Canada as we celebrate International Women’s Day this coming Thursday, March 8.
The disappearance and murder of dozens of women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside has been regarded as one of Canada’s largest news stories from the first decade of the 21st century. In his book, Missing Women, Missing News: Covering Crisis in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, David Hugill critically examines the media coverage of missing and murdered Aboriginal women from Downtown Eastside which offers an important insight into various structural inequalities and political practices that have operated to value certain lives while simultaneously disregarding others.
Missing Women, Missing News: Covering Crisis in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside
Between 1978 and 2002, over sixty women, mostly Aboriginal women, were murdered or went missing from Downtown Eastside, a stigmatized inner-city neighborhood located in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. The dramatic overrepresentation of Aboriginal women in the missing and murdered women in Downtown Eastside is directly linked to the historical and contemporary position of Aboriginal people and their communities within the larger Canadian society.
Historically, it was colonialism that brought on a new social and economic order that produced a devastating set of social and political consequences for Aboriginal people and their communities. The infamous residential schools, one of the legacies of state violence waged against Aboriginal people, “a genocide by definition,” have produced “breakdowns of family cohesion, lack of ability to foster interpersonal relationships, feelings of inferiority, loss of cultural identity and discontinuation of family traditions.” Under such historical accounts then, it becomes evident that the overrepresentation of Aboriginal women in the Downtown Eastside sex trade is produced under structural influences that push them and keep them at the margin of society, including poverty, addiction, and criminal activities. It is also under such historical oppression and marginalization of the Aboriginal community that the dismissal of the missing and murdered women, which were mainly Aboriginal sex workers, becomes evident. The refusal of the media institution, knowingly or unknowingly, to hold the state accountable for the tragedy has helped reproduce the legitimacy of the status quo. It is structural inequality that has actively produced these subjects but also left them outside of the protection of the state.
Beyond the Aboriginal status of the majority of the missing and murdered women, was also their status as sex workers. The dominant discourse of sex workers as morally corrupt and criminally dangerous has played a fundamental role in their stigmatization in our society. Such dominant discourse portrays sex workers as helpless women with debilitating addiction problems that leave them at risk for violence and victimization. The conceptualization of sex workers as victims that need saving has served as the basis for oppressive anti-prostitution laws in Canada. Ironically, law enforcement authorities were nowhere to be found when over sixty marginalized women went missing and turned up murdered. Furthermore, the media played a role in creating the foundation tragedies narrative: it was early trauma, such as sexual abuse, that ultimately led these women into a life of victimization, addiction and selling sex to support their addiction, individualizing each tragedy. By doing so, the role of larger structural forces, such as racism and poverty, in reproducing and sustaining the dangers these women confronted were ignored.
Lastly, it would be impossible to contextualize the tragedy of these women without critically looking at all the ways the individualized politics of neoliberalism produces their marginalized status in society. For one, it is the effects of neoliberal restructuring that has led to the economic marginalization of these women; leaving them in poverty with no way out. Secondly, neoliberal politics have brought on the state’s decreased involvement in addressing issues of social dislocation, such as poverty, that leave certain groups of the population on the margins of society. The status of impoverished people has become increasingly worse in Vancouver since neoliberal policies began to aggressively reshape state structures in 1983. However, when we ignore neoliberal politics that reproduce social inequalities, the victimization of these women become conceived as the inevitable outcome of their dangerous lifestyle decisions. As Hugill contends,
“the ideological foundations of the politics of neoliberalism hold the individual actor as fundamentally responsible of their own well-being while playing down, or disregard all together, the role of the state and public policies in countering individual destitution.”
In short, individual subjects become responsible for their own victimization, while the state and public policies’ roles in (re)producing the marginalization of these women get ignored. By conflicting poverty with deviance, and impurity with criminality, the historical, social and political forces that led to the marginalization of these women are ignored. Instead, personal inadequacy gets blamed for these women’s victimization. Furthermore, media institutions’ failure to critically address the state’s negligence of the crisis is proof that media messages work under distinct ideological limits and tend to favour the established authority and maintain the status quo. Under such historical and structural limitations, Hugill proposes grassroots organizations as a means by which to demand and brought on changes when the state fails to protect those who need it the most.
- The blatant disregard from law enforcement authorities and the lack of public outrage as more than sixty women went missing from Downtown Eastside can only be understood within a larger historical and socio-political context that have operated to keep certain groups of the population at the margins of society.
- The over-representation of Aboriginal women, the failure of the state in protecting the lives of these women, and the implications of the ideological foundations of the politics of neoliberalism can help us explain the crisis.
- The media’s attempt at reducing the crisis to a serious of individualized factors has served to conceal the functioning of structural and cultural systems of domination.
- It is within these ideological frameworks a particular group of marginalized women became disqualified from the protective assurance of the state.
- Hugill, David. (2010). Missing Women, Missing News: Covering Crisis in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Winnipeg: Fernwood.