Alicia Ross: Not Just Another Missing Girl

Monday, July 26 2010

By Krista Hunt

Hurricane Rita tops the news.  Before that, it was Katrina. But this is not the news that I am anxiously awaiting…

For over a month, I have been desperate for news about Alicia Ross, the 25-year-old Markham, Ontario woman who disappeared from her family’s home the night of August 16th, 2005. Alicia’s disappearance made headlines for about a week while the ground search was on, and then the media were on to other stories. Since then, her missing person poster hangs in the parking lot of my neighbourhood Loblaws. It has provided me with a haunting reminder that she is still lost. It also reminds me that it could be any woman – me, my friends, my neighbours, my students. (Incidentally, this is the same Loblaws where a man was recently caught sticking his cell phone up little girls’ skirts in order to snap lewd photos).

…Alicia’s amazingly strong mother does a couple of media interviews and talks about how she will find her girl no matter what. She composes herself long enough to tell the public very personal details about Alicia and her family in the hope that someone might know something, or at the very least, to ensure that the rest of us don’t forget her daughter is still out there. 

But most of us do forget. We forget that far too many Canadian women and girls have gone missing, and then been found, murdered by men – both those they knew, as well as those they didn’t. Holly Jones, Cecilia Jung, Christina Sukhdeo, Liana White, and those are just the ones that I can remember off the top of my head. Some of us may remember their names, the details surrounding their disappearance/murder, or their family’s pleas for their safe return. But what most of us fail to remember is that these cases are all connected. And I am not just talking about connections like whether these women faced the same brutality in their last moments. The fact is that all of the cases are connected because these women (and so many others that we didn’t hear about or remember) suffered violence at the hands of men. Boyfriends, husbands, fathers, neighbours, fiancées, and strangers. 

Violence against women by men is all too common, even though we are rarely willing to speak about it. I’ll give you some numbers, although as a caveat I have to say that even one is too many.  

Only 10% of sexual assaults on women are reported to the police. Extrapolating from these data, there are 509, 860 reported and unreported sexual assaults in Canada per year. That’s 1,397 per day; which means that every minute of every day, a woman or child in Canada is being sexually assaulted. Very often, sexual assaults are repeated on the same woman or child by the same offender (CRIAW)

By anyone’s standard’s, that’s of epidemic proportion. And that is just the incidence of violence. Many more women live in fear of violent men when they come home, when they leave home, when they use public washrooms, underground parking lots, or simply walk home from the gym. 

In addition to being victims of male violence against women, these lost women and girls are also victims of our unwillingness to take violence against women seriously. One reason is that media reports – the public’s primary source of information about such cases - never seem to get to the real heart of the matter. They never ask: WHY? Why do women and girls continue to be terrorized by strangers and more often husbands, lovers, father, uncles, neighbours? How does our silence about violence against women as a systemic social problem contribute to the fact that 51% of all Canadian women have experienced at least one incident of sexual or physical violence (60% have experienced more than one) since the age 16? 

According to writer Shannon Devine, ‘Keeping women’s stories of violence hidden allows us to avoid making the connection between the physical abuse of women and their subordinate social position….it is an example of sexism in action’ (Devine, 2003). Similarly, the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women (CRIAW) states that ‘If we are afraid to look at the clear gender relationship in violence, and what it tells us about the issue and potential solutions, we will simply perpetuate the problem for generations to come’. Further, CRIAW reports that although various levels of government have commissioned hundreds of studies on violence against women, they have ‘taken no action on the majority of the recommendations in these hundreds of reports’ (CRIAW 2002). This too is not surprising given that the public has been largely inactive in telling politicians that addressing male violence against women is a top priority.

…The same day we hear about Alicia’s murder at the hands of her 31-year-old neighbour Daniel Sylvester, Jennifer Teague’s dad makes an appeal to her killer to come forward in order to give the family closure. 

Jennifer Teague is an Ottawa teen that disappeared on September 8th, 2005  - a few weeks after Alicia – and was found murdered eleven days later. In this case, Jennifer was last seen leaving the Wendy’s restaurant where she worked, after her midnight shift ended. Her (likely male) killer has yet to be found. Again, no links are made between Alicia, Jennifer, and male violence against women. But I think Jennifer’s dad has made the connection, and that is why he is on T.V. making his appeal, the same day that Alicia’s next door neighbour turned himself in to police. So many lost, so many found…alone, naked, in the woods. 

…The next day, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty rejects calls for legislation requiring employers to arrange taxi rides to get their late night employees home safely. 

Clearly McGuinty hasn’t made the connection. He tells parents that they should pick their kids up if they work late. That is what he does. He fails to address why our kids aren’t safe. My partner reminds me that women have never been safe. Boys will be boys will be boys. 

…The same day that we hear about Alicia’s murder, politicians, community leaders, and police hold a forum in Toronto to discuss the root causes of Toronto’s ‘summer of gun violence’. Mayor David Miller calls for increased social programs targeting the city’s male youth. 

Crime prevention is on everyone’s lips. Although more police will be hired and summits will be hosted to address the male on male violence that largely characterizes this summer’s gun deaths, I can’t help but wonder why there are no calls to find root causes, fund prevention strategies, and hold political summits about male violence against women. Why aren’t we also focused on eradicating violence against women? Partly, it’s because we don’t mention ‘violence against women’ when we talk about Alicia and Jennifer and the other women and girls who share far too similar stories. 

In the name of all women and girls, we must start taking real steps to eradicate male violence against women. This starts with making the connection between individual cases and the social realties of violence against women. For instance, journalists have a key platform with which to make this connection and raise awareness about violence against women. Bringing this issue into people's homes and onto the public stage might get people talking about Alicia's disappearance as not just another missing child, but as part of the reality of violence that women and girls (including those we know, love, and live with) face daily. However, the day after news of Alicia’s murder aired, the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail ran stories that once again failed to make those connections. 

…Although the Toronto Star’s Rosie DiManno did ask “Why?”, she wanted to know why this happened to Alicia in particular. DiManno reported that Alicia’s mother has been asking the same question: ‘Indomitably, Mrs. Fortis clung to her hopes and her prayers, refusing to believe that anybody, if they’d so much as listened to Alicia for a while, given the girl a chance to talk and reason, would have inflicted any harms on her lovely child’ (22 September 2005: A8). 

And yet that is where the questions end. In the Globe as well, Christie Blatchford, crime reporter extraordinaire, failed once again to honestly ask why this continues to happen.

So what is at stake in taking violence against women seriously? Why are people so resistant? This summer, my neighbourhood started to get angry about the ‘pimps, drug dealers, crack addicts, and prostitutes’ that reside in many urban neighbourhoods like mine. Lots of people came out to the meetings. They said that they were concerned about the safety of their children, their (other) neighbours, and themselves. Of course, they were also quite concerned about their property and their property value. In fact, I would argue that this was really the biggest issue for most. The reason I say this is because I suggested the idea of organizing a community safety audit through METRAC, a local violence against women organization that helps communities to make their neighbourhoods safer. METRAC’s philosophy is that if you make a community safer for those most vulnerable to violence – namely women and girls – then you make it safer for everyone. When I mentioned the idea of the audit to a female neighbour, she said that she would be interested, as long as it ‘wasn’t too radical’. Making women and girls safe in their homes and neighbourhoods – is this a radical idea? 

Apparently it is. Although myself and another neighbour delivered flyers about the initiative to each and every doorstep, only a handful of residents showed up. And yet Statistics Canada reports that ‘forty-two percent of Canadian women compared with 10% of Canadian men feel “totally unsafe” walking in their own neighbourhood after dark, which in Canadian winters can begin at 3:30pm, even earlier in the North. Further, over a third of Canadian women (compared to one in ten men) are worried about being in their own homes alone in the evening or night’ (CRIAW, 2002). My other neighbour didn’t come because she feels completely safe in our neighbourhood. That amazed me, until I found out that she carries a knife in her purse. Come on, this is not what I mean by safety.

So what would safety for women look like? Beyond the ability to live free from the threat of rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, abduction and murder, safety would mean being able to walk home from the gym in the middle of the afternoon with my headphones on. Safety would mean not worrying about having male students in my office alone. Safety would mean not being harassed, catcalled, or intimidated by men while I walk alone in my neighbourhood. Safety would mean not having to call campus security to walk me to the subway late at night. Safety would mean not worrying that I might be slipped the ‘date rape drug’ at a bar. 

But as it stands, the very real threat of male violence against women leads me to connect this to terrorism. This threat, coupled with the failure of politicians, the media, and the general public to adequately address it, ‘is a form of daily terrorism against women as a class of citizens’ (Caiazza, 2001). Although the media have been talking a lot lately about terrorism, and even some are talking about how to prevent it (in part by addressing the systemic inequalities related to this violence), few outside feminist circles would consider violence against women as a form of terrorism. As a result, Al Qaeda terrorists, gun violence, and hurricanes top public discourse, and lost girls remain just another human-interest story. 

If I could choose tomorrow’s headline, it would be this: 

‘If silence is political, not knowing is at the core of power and its abuse’ (Nordstrum, 1999). 

It is your duty to speak up and stop the violence. Support organizations working to eradicate violence against women. Take steps in your home and neighbourhood to make it safer for all women. Tell your politicians that you demand action (and be willing to support it with your taxes). Work to educate others every opportunity you have. Refuse to remain silent.
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