Missing White Woman Syndrome — Why Do People Care Less When Women Of Colour Go Missing?

Artwork by Anna Jay.
We all know her name. We all recognise her face. We all remember her defining feature: the coloboma in her right eye. When 3-year old Madeleine McCann went missing, it was hard to escape her image: candid family photographs on every front page of every newspaper, kidnapping reenactments beamed into our homes, press conferences, radio interviews, book deals. Even now, 13 years later, it feels like there’s a new story about her disappearance every week: a new witness, a new lead, a new Netflix documentary. 
The search for Maddie is ongoing – as it should be. But who is looking for all the other missing young women and girls? According to the charity Missing People, a child is reported missing every two minutes in the UK. This abhorrent statistic conceals another fact: missing children are more likely to be girls, and those girls are disproportionately Black, Asian or minority ethnic.
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Between 2006 and 2016, countless young girls disappeared and have never been found. The names of some of them are Heydari Nastaran, Na Dang, Hayad Ahmed, Elizabeth Ogungbayibi, Kadia Diane, Na Thi Hoang and Aamina Khan. They never dominated news cycles, nor do they have dedicated police task forces looking for them. If they were ever reported on, it was a few vague sentences in a local newspaper.

A child is reported missing every two minutes in the UK. This abhorrent statistic conceals another fact: missing children are more likely to be girls, and those girls are disproportionately Black, Asian or minority ethnic.

What’s more, the circumstances around their disappearances have been obscured by the flux of time. As the years pass, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell their individual stories.
Heydari was seven when she went missing after the boat she was on capsized off the coast of Greece. Her younger siblings continue to look for their sister as they believe she may have been rescued.
Na Dang went missing from her foster home in 2015; it was assumed the 14-year-old had run away. Half a decade has passed and we still don’t know if she is safe, or exactly what happened to her.
Hayad was 14 when she went missing from south London. Little is known about the circumstances around her disappearance.
Elizabeth was five years old when she went missing in 2006. She was last seen in Manchester or Bradford, depending on who you ask.
Kadia was living in a residential unit in Manchester when she went missing in 2012. The police described her disappearance as "very much out of character". 
Na Thi Hoang was 14 when she vanished from Bognor Regis in 2016. Her current whereabouts are unknown.
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The reasons why a child might go missing vary, from abduction by a family member to abduction by a stranger, to being forced to leave home to running away from home. Sadly, the attention we give to their disappearance seems to vary, too. 
Aamina Khan, from Croydon, was abducted in 2011 aged 6. She is currently believed to be in Pakistan with her mother, who is thought to have abducted Aamina after her father, Safraz, was given full custody but this is not confirmed. When I speak to Safraz, who was Aamina’s primary caregiver and legal guardian, he is insistent that if circumstances had been different, she would have been brought home.
"If Aamina had been white, she would have been rescued," he says, sounding exasperated. "If I had been white, Aamina would have been rescued. The police would have been involved. The courts would have helped. There would have been articles about her. The authorities were absolutely useless."
What’s going on here? Why haven’t you heard of Aamina? Why hasn’t the British government spent £12 million trying to bring her home?

If Aamina had been white, she would have been rescued. If I had been white, Aamina would have been rescued. The police would have been involved. The courts would have helped. There would have been articles about her. The authorities were absolutely useless.

Safraz Khan, father of aamina
Parental child abduction is more common than many people realise. You might assume that if a child is with a parent, they’re safe from harm or they’re not really missing. However Vicky Mayes at Reunite – the leading UK charity specialising in parental child abduction and the movement of children across international borders – explains that this assumption that parental child abductions are less important than stranger abductions is wrong. 
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"Even if a child is with family, they’re not necessarily safe," she explains. "It’s a criminal issue. Every abduction should be investigated. Every missing child should be looked for. It’s important that we recognise that every child is equal and every child is equally valuable."
Vicky adds that children with parents who are foreign nationals or have connections overseas are more susceptible to parental abduction, which might also explain why missing children are disproportionately from Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups.
This, I’m afraid to say, is something that I have experienced firsthand. As a young infant I was abducted from the UK by my father, who was an Egyptian national. We were found at Amsterdam airport, as we boarded a flight to Cairo. I often wonder what might have happened if my father had not been intercepted by Dutch authorities. Egypt has not signed the 1980 Hague Convention, which seeks to return abducted children to their country of habitual residence. My British family would have had no rights under Egyptian law, and no way of ensuring my safety or contacting me.
My brown skin and foreign name, combined with the fact that I was abducted by a parent, mean that you probably wouldn’t have heard about me, either. The authorities definitely wouldn’t have spent stacks of money trying to rescue me. I’d be just another statistic on the Missing People website, another British girl of colour, gone, lost.
The ways in which the media reports on missing children are undeniably unequally distributed.
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Missing White Woman Syndrome is a term used to show how incidents of missing young white women and girls from middle-class backgrounds receive national and even international attention for months on end, while others are ignored. This extends not only to young women of colour but also to women from lower socioeconomic classes. 
When Hannah Williams from Deptford in south London disappeared in 2001, she attracted very little press. As a girl from a working-class single parent home who had a history of running away and attended a pupil referral unit, she didn’t stand a chance. Her mother was described by the police as not being "press conference material" and there was no concerted effort by the media to inform the public about her disappearance. When reports of the discovery of her heavily decomposed body, wrapped in tarpaulin in a cement works in Kent, were published 11 months later, many rightly asked why this was the first they were hearing about her. She had been murdered by a serial sex offender named Robert Howard

Missing White Woman Syndrome describes how incidents of missing young white women and girls from middle-class backgrounds receive national and even international attention for months on end, while others are ignored. This extends not only to young women of colour but also to women from lower socioeconomic classes. 

Contrast Hannah’s case with that of Milly Dowler, a middle-class 13-year-old from a stable family. She hadn’t spent time in care. Her parents were still together. She didn’t have a nose ring. When she went missing, a year after Hannah, her face was immediately everywhere, imprinted on the public consciousness. She didn’t survive but her memory does. Her parents set up a charity in her name; her sister wrote a book; Surrey Police helped develop an award-winning garden in her honour at the Hampton Court Flower Show.
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It goes without saying that the abduction, let alone the assault or murder, of any young woman is a heinous crime. No life is worth more than another, and that’s precisely the point. Because some missing girls have neater or perhaps more palatable backgrounds, it’s easier to tell their stories. Girls with hard, complicated lives like Hannah don’t attract the same level of public interest because value judgements are projected onto them, assumptions are made. 
I spoke to Amy-Kathleen Walker from Missing People about the torturous ambiguity of having a loved one go missing. "You’re stuck in the grief cycle. You feel everything, constantly and on a loop," she explains. "You have no idea how long you’re going to be in it. Most people are found within a week; either they return or their bodies are recovered. Some people are never found."
"When a loved one goes missing, you want the world to stop. You want the world to stop and look for them. But that doesn’t always happen," she adds. 
Amy-Kathleen insists that Missing People publicises every missing person equally. She doesn’t explain why some missing children get more coverage than others but is reluctant to blame discrimination.
"We put out a lot of press releases. We try to get attention for every missing person. Who the media pick up and why, I have no idea. There doesn’t seem to be a particularly obvious checklist to ensure a missing person gets press coverage."
She would know. For six years Amy-Kathleen was responsible for pushing the button on the Child Rescue Alert system (England and Wales’ version of America’s AMBER alert), which she did a total of 40 times in that period. "Many [of the missing children] did not get the traction you would expect. It’s difficult to gauge," she explains. "Sometimes I’ll be working with a journalist, and something else happens in the news. The media is very reactive."
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Amy-Kathleen’s role in getting publicity for the case of a missing child is important to note. People often assume that Kate and Gerry McCann are mostly responsible for sustaining public interest and keeping the pressure on politicians and police officers to continue the search for their daughter. Families of children from marginalised groups may not have the media savvy or resources to coordinate such a campaign.
"We do publicity for everyone referred to us, and we don’t push any less just because there isn’t a family member [putting the pressure on]," Amy-Kathleen says.
I remain unconvinced, though. In a 2018 study of missing children, it was found that gender and race play a crucial role in determining the recovery chances of a missing child. Black children go missing for longer on average, and are more likely to remain missing, than white children. The charity Missing People might not be actively discriminating but that doesn’t mean they escape the systemic bias present in society as a whole.
Journalist and academic Sarah Stillman, who authored the crucial 2007 paper "'The Missing White Girl Syndrome': Disappeared Women and Media Activism", believes that ultimately it is the media that guides how the public responds to news.

When a loved one goes missing, you want the world to stop. You want the world to stop and look for them. But that doesn't always happen.

Amy-Kathleen Walker, Missing People
"If you look at coverage of missing middle-class white girls, the media provides a toolkit for how to have empathy for them," Stillman explains. "Here’s a picture of them as a baby! Here’s their family! Here’s instructions on how to give a shit! That’s not afforded to other types of victims. It all comes down to who gets afforded the privilege of media attention, and who is considered disposable."
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This is about more than counting column inches; it’s a matter of life and death. The media plays such a huge part in the outcome of a missing person case. Coverage lends itself to mobilisation, which of course leads to more positive results. If the details of a missing child are disseminated widely, that child is far more likely to be found.
The media can also affect policy long-term. Rhetoric around missing and murdered white girls and women has informed so much of our society, and infiltrated the public consciousness. Following the tragic murder of Sarah Payne in 2000, parliament passed Sarah’s Law, which enables parents to enquire whether someone is a registered sex offender or poses a risk to their child. Similarly, in the US we have seen the implementation of Lori’s Law, Megan’s Law, Jessica’s Law and Caylee’s Law – legislative bills named after murdered white girls.
The trope of the damsel in distress endures. And guess what? That damsel is almost always white. This, Stillman explains, is partly because "stories about women in peril have been used to criminalise people of colour and justify violence against them." It’s a tale as old as time – remember To Kill A Mockingbird?
It’s a not entirely pleasant fact that journalists and commentators weaponise our discomfort and convert it into outrage. Crimes against young white middle-class female victims inspire moral panic; this sells papers and gets eyeballs on online articles. 
Following Sarah Payne’s death, News of the World, which was the bestselling newspaper in the UK at the time, started a "name and shame" campaign whereby they published the names and addresses of convicted sex offenders, in what was described as a wholly irresponsible stunt. Predictably, hysteria ensued. Someone famously daubed anti-paedophile graffiti on a paediatrician’s home in Wales.
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This reaction shouldn’t surprise us. We should consider how vigilante groups mete out justice and seek retribution for missing and murdered white girls. In 1986 the Norwegian criminologist Nils Christie published a paper in which he described the 'ideal victim' and what they might look like. His theory implied that there is a hierarchy of victimhood within society: the most vulnerable, respectable and blameless victims garner the most sympathy, while victims who don’t conform to certain criteria are relegated. Christie gave the example of an innocent old lady who is the victim of a mugging. However, when imagining society’s ideal victim, it’s hard not to consider young white girls such as Madeleine McCann, Sarah Payne, Milly Dowler and April Jones.
When April went missing in 2012, it kickstarted the biggest search for a missing person in UK police history. Then Prime Minister David Cameron made a televised appeal for information and April’s disappearance was reported across the world. Eventually, a man was charged with April’s murder, found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.
When white girls go missing, even if the outcome is devastating, the pursuit of justice is rigorous and unerring. As a society we come together to ensure we obtain closure. What gives? Why don’t we apply the same efforts when a child of colour goes missing?
This has to change. Black, Asian and children from minority ethnic backgrounds are more likely to come from economically marginalised communities, which may limit resources available to their families for recovery efforts. Children in care, who are disproportionately from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, are three times more likely to go missing than children living with family members. The odds are stacked against them even before you factor in the prejudices preventing coverage when they do go missing. 
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Everyone is treated equally under the law, until they’re not.
I ask Stillman whether she thinks current discourse around Black Lives Matter might be forcing journalists to reconsider how they portray missing individuals. "One of the important features [of the movement] is that it is reclaiming the collective care for people who’ve experienced violence; it gives us a conversation around valuing the lost lives of folks of colour," she says.
Might we one day live in a world where all missing children are afforded the same level of media attention? Where we dedicate unending resources to finding girls who go missing, regardless of the colour of their skin or the socioeconomic status of their parents? Where we say their names, loudly?
Last year, the Home Office provided the Metropolitan Police with a further £292,000 to fund Operation Grange, the task force set up specifically to investigate Madeleine’s disappearance. The government has so far spent almost £12 million looking for her.
The Home Office has now received an application from the Metropolitan Police for further funding for Operation Grange. They won’t comment on ongoing investigations but it’s clear that the search for Madeleine McCann continues. Of course, we shouldn’t denigrate efforts to bring Maddie home. In an ideal world the Home Office would pay £12 million to recover every missing child. Failing that, though, I can’t help but feel that resources could be allocated more equitably.
In the time it’s taken you to read this article, more children have been reported missing. We can’t keep up. We have compassion fatigue. It’s easier not to care and the lack of media coverage of missing brown and Black girls, and girls from marginalised economic backgrounds, reinforces our indifference.
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The wider world may have forgotten about Aamina Khan but Safraz hasn’t. He still hopes that he will be reunited with his daughter. "A day hasn’t gone by when I don’t wonder how she is, what she’s doing, if she remembers me," he says. 
"I’ve changed mentally and emotionally. I don’t sleep as much now. I struggle with anger. I’m not scared of dying. I’m not scared of anything. Sometimes I don’t believe in God. I’ve lost my faith. I feel a lot of guilt. I don’t want her to think I gave up on her, but financially I haven’t been able to continue my search, and the courts and the police are not interested."
His voice breaks. "I just want my daughter back."
Missing People is the only charity in the UK dedicated to supporting people affected by a disappearance, and bringing missing people back to safety. The charity operates a free and confidential helpline that’s open 24/7. If you or someone you know is missing, if you’re away from home or thinking of leaving, or if you have information about a missing person, call or text 116000 or email 116000@missingpeople.org.uk.

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