The Global Women’s Memorial Website : Creating a circle from which to speak in unison

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December 6th, 1989

On the afternoon of December 6, 1989, fourteen women were systematically murdered at L’École Polytechnique in Montréal. There were so few women enrolled in engineering that the murderer had to search the rooms and hallways to find them. A huge national outcry against violence against women ensued.

Violence against women is endemic in Canadian society, and the loss of these fourteen women became symbolic of collective pain and repudiation of violence. Around the same time, in what can almost be described as a parallel universe, Native women continued to suffer a disproportionately high rate of violence, murder and disappearances, rooted in colonization; and the violence continues.

A proliferation of memorial-making

These catalysts combined and gave birth to memorial activism, a new form of resistance to violence against women. Memorial marches led by Native women grieve their lost sisters, and demand justice and freedom from violence. Outpourings of memorial activism include vigils, monuments, songs, gardens, plaques, and violence awareness campaigns that insist we remember the many women and girls, murdered and missing.

In 1992, on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, Cheryl Anne Joe was horrendously murdered and dismembered, her body found at the corner of Powell and Salsbury. In pain and outrage, First Nation’s women initiated the Valentine’s Day Memorial March. Following Cheryl Anne’s death, residents began to piece together a disturbing picture; women were disappearing from the area and not returning. The march became an annual event to protest the high numbers of women missing and murdered in their community. During the march, a healing ritual is performed at each site where a woman’s body has been found.

A series of horrific murders of women in Ottawa culminated in the formation of a broad-based women’s action group dedicated to creating a memorial to women murdered in the Ottawa-Carleton area. Enclave, the Ottawa Women’s Monument in Minto Park, was dedicated in 1992. Here, among the many stones which flank a central sculpture, is one stone dedicated to fourteen year old Sharon Mohammad, the youngest of six local women murdered between 1990 and 1991. To date, Minto Park continues to be a gathering place and a site of activism.    

Years after Enclave’s unveiling, a thousand people gathered at the site of the women’s monument in Vancouver to inaugurate Marker of Change on December 6, 1997. Native women drummers from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside joined the crowd. A circle of fourteen pink granite benches were unveiled one by one as the name of a woman murdered at L’École Polytechnique eight years before was read aloud to the hushed crowd. People held hands in a giant circle as the tears flowed.

Piecing together the big picture

While working on the fundraising, design competition and building of the Marker of Change memorial, members of the project heard about other memorial projects arising across Canada. However, the monument project in Vancouver was plagued by controversy and virulent opposition, leaving the participants little time to fully appreciate or learn from the hard work of others. After the unveiling of Marker of Change, the project was archived at the Simon Fraser University Archives. This took until the year 2000. With archiving out of the way, clearly the next step was to make a website featuring the monument, letting people know where it is and inviting public use.

Around this time, Christine McDowell, a member of the project committee, began to photograph and videotape other memorials across Canada. McDowell took these materials to the National Film Board of Canada and thus began a creative journey that led to the development of the Global Women’s Memorial Website.

Creating a circle from which to speak in unison

A group of women gradually emerged to carry the project forward. They include researchers, activists, artists, designers and others from across the country. We now form the core of the Global Women’s Memorial Society, and are seeking funds for the website project. Once funds are secured, we expect the group will expand exponentially to enable memorial makers to profile their own projects, and to collaborate with all those whose expertise will be required to mobilize, to bring the website project -- and its goal of fostering resistance to violence against women -- to fruition.

The Internet has been used to exploit women through trade in pornographic images, and mail order brides; it is a tool of pimps and stalkers. Moreover, it’s a military invention, its technology originally developed to enable military communications during war.  

But the Internet’s potential to be a global commons enabling direct democracy must and can be reclaimed. It is used to help isolated women escape abusive relationships. It has increased their access to information and services concerning health, finance, and education. The web has enabled women to offer personal support through blogs and chat rooms. It has helped women to balance work and family through telecommuting and cyber cottage industries, and it has strengthened the infrastructure of women’s organizations. Globally, networks have enacted political pressure using feminist email campaigns and online petitions. 

Through the kind of networks facilitated by the Internet, we have the opportunity to decentralize the power of communication systems and thereby better determine social issues. Because the technology is relatively new, its borders are in flux; through this kind of project, we can intervene in the technology's evolution, to  shape -- as users -- what it will become.

Moreover, the Global Women’s Memorial Website project is innovative because it uses technology to broaden the terrain of art and social critique. And the Internet can be an agent of cultural memory too. Using sophisticated technology, we will offer memorial activists free template websites to author and publish their stories, bringing us closer to the truth about the murder of women, and empowering collective action. These sub-sites will be housed within the larger Global Women’s Memorial portal.

We envision a site where visitors feel welcome and empowered. Immediate acts of resistance built into the website will enable site participants to speak out directly. An interactive virtual memorial will enable visitors to remember women who have been murdered. Their actions will be counted, literally, by an on-site counter, thereby showing that they are not alone. Visitors will be able to go to the Photo Gallery section of the site to post their own photographs within the theme “Signs of Resistance.”  A document entitled “10 Things Anyone Can Do Against Violence” will be available to download at the click of a button.

Remembering is an act of resistance to violence against women

The website champions a significant cultural shift toward the remembrance and valuing of the women we have lost to violence. The website, like the women’s memorials, represents an activist, artistic, cultural and conceptual approach to countering the denial of violence against women in our society.

We already know that within Canada and throughout the world atrocities against women are perpetrated daily: women are systematically raped and murdered en masse in conflict zones; killed in deliberately set kitchen fires; disappeared by regimes, by strangers, and by family members; gunned down in public institutions; tortured with domestic violence; hunted by serial killers; and trafficked for sex. Sixty million women are “missing” from the world today as a result of sex-selective abortions and female infanticide (Amnesty International statistics, 2007).

Given the great weight of the problems we are addressing, we believe that the public consciousness and political pressure represented by the memorial movement in Canada can be used to embolden the international struggle to end violence against women.

Through our public acts of remembrance, virtual and actual, we will expose what has been swept under the carpet of patriarchy, drawing attention to a war against women that is far from over.

Ultimately, it is our intent to participate in changing the twisted historical emphasis that occurs in society, an emphasis that gives the perpetrators and their acts of violence notoriety and fame. Cultural memory determines which stories are remembered and which are forgotten, whose voices are celebrated and whose are suppressed. We believe that by remembering the women we have lost and shining a light on the destructive effects of violence we will exert a positive anti-violence influence on governments, criminal justice systems, the media and the general public.

For more information -- including a map detailing all of the women’s memorial sites across Canada -- and for details on how to donate money to the Global Women’s Memorial site, visit: www.globalwomensmemorial.org