When I was 15 years old, I would often walk home from my tutoring appointments. One day a blizzard came out of nowhere, prodding me to stop for a hot chocolate at Tim Horton’s. It warmed me up enough to brave the elements once again. When I arrived home, my mom told me she had been driving up and down the road I walked on, trying to find me in the snow storm. Her concern – that I was cold, hungry, tired, or lost – made her leave the office early to come search for me.
Two weeks ago I took part in a community walk for Tyeshia Jones, an 18 year-old native girl from Duncan, British Columbia who went missing on January 22. She was walking late at night through a wooded area to meet a friend, but never showed up. After an extensive search by police, her undressed body was found near a cemetery on January 28. Her killer has not been found yet. This follows the trend of over 500 missing and murdered native women and girls in Canada over the last 15 years.
The Take Back the Night walk drew out crowds from all over the Cowichan Valley.
I thought that surely this would alert young girls about the dangers of walking alone at night, especially in dark, isolated areas where they are an easy target. After all, awareness is the key to change, and such a brutal murder would be a wake-up call for many. Sadly, an event occurred as I was driving home with my husband last week that has made realize the complexity of vulnerability.
We were driving on a fairly isolated road at around 10 pm on Tuesday, when we saw a young girl in a mini skirt trying to hitch a ride. She looked 14, maybe 15 years old. It was raining. We drove past her, and my husband pulled a U-turn just in time to see a group of guys park their car on the side of the road and start walking toward the girl. We cut them off and told her to get into our car.
We asked her some questions, and she told us she was coming from a family get-together and often walked home at night. We asked her where she lived. We drove, and drove, and drove…for a good 15 to 20 minutes. She directed us onto a dirt road with no lights. Dense forest. I felt a tightening in my chest as we drove deeper and deeper into the bush. This was a sex offender’s dream.
This girl was Tyeshia! Her situation was the exact same – walking home alone on isolated reserve land. Â She had attended the same community walk we had, but did not make the connection that she was in danger. We told her she should try as best she could to arrange rides ahead of time and reminded her that Tyeisha’s killer was still on the loose. We dropped her off at a run-down, white house in the middle of the forest, surrounded by piles of cans and bottles.
I felt sick to my stomach and barely slept. What would those guys have done if we had not cut them off? This girl’s house was right across the river from the area where Tyeshia’s body was found. I realized how for granted I had taken the concern of my mom who was willing to drive in a blizzard to find me.
When we made our documentary about sex trafficking in Canada, we interviewed a researcher named Anupriya Sethi about why Aboriginal women and girls are particularly vulnerable to being trafficked. She mentioned that often native girls have to hitch hike to get on or off reserves, and traffickers, pimps, johns, rapists, paedophiles, and murderers take advantage of this vulnerability.
I never thought I would see this trend with my own eyes.
I want to believe that if we make girls aware of dangers, trafficking and exploitation will stop. But there is so much at play here. If this girl’s family was not willing to drive her home at 10 pm, what kind of support system does she have? The fact that she often had to walk home demonstrated that she did not have a parent concerned enough about her to make her stop hitch hiking. What other option does she have of getting off the reserve? We may be tempted to call her foolish and that she is bringing it upon herself, but we have to look at the system of oppression and poverty that defines her life and address that on her behalf.
How are we, as a society, willing to do that? A friend of mine is part of the Big Sisters program, which connects kids to mentors who come alongside them through the difficulties and struggles of life. One group here in the Cowichan Valley is trying to address income inequalities and want to raise the minimum wage to a living wage. I would love to see more street lights on reserve roads.
Thanks for letting me share my heart, it has been so heavy this week. We MUST watch out for those in our communities who are vulnerable and think of creative ways to solve systemic issues of oppression.
Freedom Week 2011 has just started in Vancouver! For details on events, including Gunilla Ekberg’s talks on the Swedish Model of dealing with prostitution, click here.