What’s the most effective way to advance women’s rights on a global scale?
Back in 1995, it seemed large international conferences were the way to go. At the Fourth World Conference on Women that year, world leaders signed the Beijing Declaration, which looked like the modern blueprint for tackling global gender inequality.
But women continue to face many of the same barriers today that they did in 1995, proving that high-level panel discussions and well-meaning conventions aren’t enough.
Today, social media campaigns like #MeToo and #TimesUp have stimulated mass advocacy around women’s rights in a way policymakers in 1995 could have only imagined. Accessible to more women than a U.N. conference, social media has allowed individuals to bypass top-down approaches to social change, becoming activists of their own making, unbarred by their social, economic, or physical positions.
Or so we thought. Despite the democratization of information-sharing on social media, some women have failed to command the world’s attention. This is even true on the continent that gave birth to #MeToo. Across Canada, the U.S., and Mexico, indigenous women are falling prey to high rates of violence—and no one seems to be listening.
Indigenous women come from distinct cultural groups across North America, but they share many of the same shocking statistics. In Canada, a 2015 report concluded that native women account for nearly 25 percent of female homicides. And although unsolved murders have plagued indigenous communities since the 1970s, the Canadian government only made it a matter of national urgency forty years later.
In the United States, native women are ten times more likely to be killed than other Americans. More disturbing still is the absence of official statistics for missing cases. This fact inspired the 2017 film Wind River (ironically produced by the Weinstein Company), which stands as one of the only recent attempts to vocalize the issue in mainstream media.
In Mexico, indigenous women—many of whom moved to the country’s northern cities to take jobs at manufacturing centers known as “maquiladoras”—also comprise a significant number of female murder victims. And most of these violent incidents occur on the women’s journeys to and from work—either on foot or on public transportation. Local human rights groups believe indigenous women in Mexico make up a large percentage of the missing cases and murder statistics, yet their stories are underreported.
Frequent reports of police disinterest and racial stereotyping also link the experiences of native women across North America. Racist associations of indigenous communities with substance abuse mean police often don’t believe that victims are actually missing. Instead, they delay reporting cases, assuming the victim will return once she is “sober.” Advocacy groups and relatives of victims across the continent cite police disinterest in the cases as one of the reasons why so many murders continue with impunity.
While many indigenous women’s organizations have a presence on social media (including the Native Women’s Association of Canada and the Native American equality organization Native Hope), most of their stories—unlike #MeToo—have yet to go viral. And this is part of the reason why the stories of indigenous women are continuing to go untold—and why social and political solutions have been slow to develop.
Social media campaigns have helped movements like Time’s Up go from symbolism to activism by raising awareness and mobilizing resources. Its high-profile origin among Hollywood’s female elite has meant that other grassroots organizations could learn about the movement and reach out to help garner resources. The National Farmworker Women’s Alliance, for example, penned a letter to the founders of Time’s Up who raised more than $21 million for ordinary women to fight workplace harassment cases.
Before the popularity of #MeToo and Time’s Up, social media also empowered the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and sparked a global discussion about race. Thanks in part to its viral popularity on social media, the movement secured funding some big investors, including the Ford Foundation.
What these examples prove is that enabling groups to build coalitions and mobilize resources, social media has the power to turn hashtags into advocacy movements with financial backing that can really make a difference. And it’s time to do the same for the #IndigenousLivesMatter hashtag.
It’s too early to say whether social media is truly the most effective medium for activists and policymakers seeking to bring about social change. But the exposure and discussion that Time’s Up, #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter have commanded online are powerful first steps to changing inequalities on the ground.
So until we use the power at our fingertips to magnify #IndigenousLivesMatter, we won’t know how far it can go.