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Nepal: helping families cope with the ambiguous loss of a missing person

24-07-2012 Feature

The conflict in Nepal left hundreds missing. Their families have been living in uncertainty since the conflict ended, clinging to the hope that they may still be alive and desperate to know for certain.

The lives of many Nepalese families changed overnight after a son, husband or father disappeared during the 1996-2006 conflict. Most families have had no news of their missing relatives. This leaves them in a dilemma: they feel that their loved ones are dead, yet cling to the hope that they could be alive. As one man puts it: "We haven’t seen their bodies, but they haven’t come home. Some say they’re still alive, but nothing is clear."

Sita* (38) still does not know what happened to her husband after he went missing in 2002, at the age of 30, leaving her with two small children. He was a very active member of a political party. After leaving his house one morning as usual for his political activities, he disappeared and was never seen again. Sita and their children have been waiting for his return ever since. She became the family breadwinner, doing her best to bring up their children. Despite having no real sources of income, and too little land to cultivate, she still has to find a way of sending the children to school.

Most women whose husbands went missing during the conflict face stigmatization by their own communities. "I was despised, discriminated against and even rejected by some members of the community," Sita recalls. "I was forced to become a recluse." She sank into despair, and suffered insomnia and nightmares. "I cried for days on end. I was so anxious, imagining what might have happened to my husband. I didn’t know what would happen to my children. It was all very painful."

Sita's case is not unique. Wives of missing persons have to overcome the cultural constraints of a society based firmly on tradition, religion and culture. Without a husband, they lose their role in the family and are seen as an extra mouth to feed. In the community, women see them as threats, and men perceive them as sexually available. They cannot claim their husbands’ property. Because no-one knows whether her husband is alive or dead, a woman in these circumstances cannot comply with traditions. These include such things as how a widow should dress and behave, whether or not to carry out the rites expected of widows and whether or not to attend ceremonies like weddings, to which widows are not admitted –they are seen as bringing bad luck to happy occasions.

"We were rejected and stigmatized. We didn’t even dare introduce ourselves to other members of the community,” Sita recalls. “We used to spend most of our time in solitude, sorrow and anxiety." Generally, these women’s communities fail to understand their behaviour and are unable to help them, leaving them isolated and with no one to turn to for support. "I was about to abandon everything, my children, my in-laws, everything,” continues Sita. “But I did receive support from some relatives such as my stepmother. Thanks to them, I finally decided to stay and take care of my children while I wait to find out what happened to my husband." Her two children are now teenagers and attending school. They bring her enormous pride and comfort.

To help families of missing persons cope with their suffering and the ambiguity of their loss, the ICRC launched a psychosocial support programme called Hateymalo (“join hands together”) in 2010. The programme started off in 16 districts, and involves local partners. Families receive psychological, socio-cultural, economical, legal and administrative support.

In June 2011, Sita decided to join Hateymalo after attending an information session organized by ICRC-trained coaches. She was highly sceptical at first, but today she is proud to be participating. " Hateymalo has taught us to discuss our situations, to share our sorrows, to talk and to find solutions," she said. "The ICRC’s legal, administrative and economic support has helped us to start new lives. Our regular meetings are so useful to our healing process that we now count the days to the next meeting." According to Yubaraj Adhikari, who runs the ICRC psychosocial support programme in Kathmandu, more than 700 families of missing persons have benefited from this programme so far. The ICRC is planning to expand the programme to cover another 25 districts by 2013, reaching 550 more families.

They are still waiting to find out what has happened to their missing relatives, but most of the families in the Hateymalo programme can now cope better, and are a little more optimistic about their future. "My situation has improved a lot through this programme. As a result, people who discriminated against me and rejected me now respect me. My children are attending school and they help me cultivate my field. I’m very proud of them and I’m confident about the future," concludes Sita with a little smile.

Hateymalo members in Banke District recently dedicated memorials they have built for their missing relatives with the support of partners that included the ICRC and their communities.

* Not her real name


Photos

Banke District, Nepal. Sita talks to her visitors from the ICRC. 

Banke District, Nepal. Sita talks to her visitors from the ICRC.
© ICRC

Banke District, Nepal. Yubaraj Adhikari (head of the ICRC psychosocial support project) interprets between Sita and his ICRC colleagues. 

Banke District, Nepal. Yubaraj Adhikari (head of the ICRC psychosocial support project) interprets between Sita and his ICRC colleagues.
© ICRC

Banke District, Nepal. Sita and her two children, all smiles at the end of our meeting. 

Banke District, Nepal. Sita and her two children, all smiles at the end of our meeting.
© ICRC