Nepal: women and their missing relatives
More than 1,400 people – mostly men – are still missing following the 10-year armed conflict in Nepal. Their wives or mothers have had to take on the "man's" role in their families. On the occasion of International Women's Day (8 March), Sylvie Thoral, who heads the ICRC delegation in Nepal, explains how they are coping.
What is the effect on Nepalese women of a relative going missing?
A woman whose husband or son went missing during the armed conflict suffers the enduring anguish of not knowing whether he is alive or dead. She will struggle to deal with the ambiguous loss of the missing relative, always wondering whether to accept the likelihood of death while still hoping that the person will return. Families need answers, proof of what has happened to their relatives, so that they can perform the final rites, begin the process of reconciliation with the past and start to move on with their lives.
Women whose husbands went missing during the conflict are stigmatized in their communities. Not knowing what has happened to their spouses, many of these women do not conform to traditional practice as to how a widow should dress and behave. Their communities are unable to understand their behaviour, leaving them isolated and with no-one to turn to for support.
The absence of these husbands and sons has caused economic hardship and suffering for their families. Women have struggled to provide such basic necessities as food for their families and education for their children. As missing persons have no legal status in Nepal, their wives face legal and administrative challenges when it comes to such things as claiming their property to ease their families' economic hardship.
What is the ICRC doing to address the special needs of women whose relatives are still missing?
Our priority has been to provide a setting in which these women can help each other and obtain professional help, to ensure that they can overcome the economic and legal consequences of their breadwinning partners going missing.
We have developed a community programme based on support groups, in an attempt to relieve the distress and difficulties that the wives and mothers of missing persons experience. It gives these women a forum in which to meet and an opportunity to discover new connections and share their concerns, so that they can begin to move on with their lives. It aims to help them to function once more at individual, community and family level. This approach deals with emotional, cultural and religious issues and addresses community support needs. The programme includes professional counselling services provided by trained counsellors, theme-centred therapeutic support groups, and street dramas to raise awareness in communities about the problems faced by the families of missing persons and generate community support.
How has this helped improve their situation?
There has been a marked improvement in their well-being, as revealed by an initial evaluation carried out among 250 women. The assistance had a positive effect on their family and community lives, and enabled them to form social networks, which helped counter the social and cultural stigma attached to their status. For instance, commemoration ceremonies are performed for missing relatives, responding to cultural and spiritual beliefs related to the disappearance. These help bring closure and enable people to move on. The participation of communities in such events brings acceptance and dignity to wives and mothers whose loved ones are still missing.
What else can be done to help the wives and mothers of missing persons?
We also work with community-based organizations and international NGOs specializing in micro-economic development or vocational training to help these women in economic terms. In some cases, this involves coordinating the provision of legal and administrative support enabling women to obtain interim relief from the government and scholarships for their children. Before the government launched its relief programme – between 2006 and 2009 – the ICRC and the Nepal Red Cross Society provided economic support to help families affected by the conflict to regain their livelihoods. Over 60 percent of these households were headed by women.
Other activities include promoting awareness of the needs of the families of missing persons among the general public, government bodies responsible for providing compensation or interim relief, and other entities that can help. In addition, we maintain a confidential dialogue on behalf of the families of missing persons with the former parties to the conflict, to establish the fate and whereabouts of these people.
How does the ICRC maintain contact with the families of missing persons?
ICRC and Nepal Red Cross Society staff are working closely together to maintain contact with the families. In some cases they have to walk for days to reach families in the most remote parts of the country, as these areas are inaccessible by vehicle owing to the mountainous terrain. This contact keeps the families informed about any developments and helps them obtain the government assistance to which they are entitled. The ICRC also trains the Nepal Red Cross volunteers who meet the families.