Women with missing loved ones – Emotional distress and economic hardship

Unfortunately, there are no jobs for professionals here – our economic situation is very difficult. " Aoerea's husband, Zenon, has been missing in Peru since 1991. Her story is, sadly, all too common. In most present and former conflict areas, it is mainly men who have gone missing, and often remained unaccounted for as the decades pass. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, for example, men account for an estimated 92% of the 17,000 or more persons still listed as missing.

The tragedy of people who go missing in war often hits women particularly hard. Not only do they face the trauma of not knowing what has happened to a husband, father or son, but they may also have to fill the gap left by the absence of the family's main breadwinner. From one day to the next, many women find themselves having to provide for their families for the first time in their lives. Their emotional suffering is thus exacerbated by the economic distress they so frequently face.

The specific needs of women were recognized by an international conference of experts on persons missing because of war and internal violence that the ICRC held in Geneva in February. In the final conference document, the 350 participants from 90 countries called for measures to ensure that " the needs of single heads of families be the object of special attention " . The same document also states that the specific needs faced by women in such situations should be taken into consideration.

Among the specific needs identified by the conference are solutions to frequent legal problems. For example, since missing husbands cannot officially be declared dead as long as there is doubt about what has happened t o them, their wives are often not entitled to inherit their estates, assume legal responsibility for their children, or remarry. To deal with this problem, the conference called on governments to address the legal situation of persons unaccounted for and the consequences for family members, including in terms of property administration, guardianship and parental authority.

The Geneva conference marked an important step forward because it ended with a clear commitment by all those involved – governments, non-governmental organizations, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, and associations of the families of the missing – to make renewed efforts to find out what has happened to the missing and to support their families, women in particular. However, the meeting's ultimate success will depend on the willingness of all involved to translate their pledges into practical action.