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Women and the Missing: the burden of those left behind

28-02-2008 Interview

On the occasion of International Women’s Day (8 March), Florence Tercier, ICRC’s women and war adviser, explains the immensely challenging plight of women whose male relatives have gone missing in war and what the ICRC is doing to support them.


  Florence Tercier, ICRC's women and war adviser.    

 Women all over the world face great hardship when their male relatives go missing in war. Can you describe some of the challenges they face?  

Tens of thousands, or perhaps even hundreds of thousands of women in the world have lost track of a son, father or husband in an armed conflict. Some of them have been notified unambiguously of his death and have been able to hold a funeral for him. But unfortunately many live in the uncertain hope that their loved one might still be alive and, even after many years have passed, they refuse to believe that the person is dead unless they receive genuine confirmation. This distressing uncertainty prevents them from accepting reality and performing rites enabling them to mourn the death of a close relative. This situation can have very serious psychological consequences for the people concerned and a considerable impact on their daily lives, especially when the reaction of their social environment is inappropriate. 

The disappearance of a husband, father or son is not only an emotional shock; the missing person is often the family's main breadwinner, or the sole owner of marital property. Women are therefore left destitute, ill prepared and hardly trained to take his place. Although the wife of a missing person experiences the same problems as those encountered by a widow, her difficulties are exacerbated by the fact that very often her husband’s status – and hence her own status and that of her children – is not officially recognized. In the absence of a death certificate these women are not generally entitled to the financial and practical assistance given to widows. Their right to administer property, to inherit, to have custody of their children and to receive benefits, as well as their prospects of remarriage, are jeopardized.

Depending on their own resourcefulness and the support they receive from their family and their community, some manage to overcom e these difficulties and to find the help they need in order to cope with the situation. This is the case of Olja in Serbia who, thanks to her training, was able to write and publish the diary she wrote after her husband had vanished, thus echoing the experiences of missing persons’ families (see feature ). But I have also met women in Nepal, especially those from lower castes, whose husbands were missing and who were living in great poverty. These women went about their daily tasks, but they had lost their reason to live, their status in the community, their family belongings (which had been taken back by their parents-in-law) and any prospect of a better future, because they could never remarry. They had blank expressions and seemed to be frozen in an interminable waiting attitude, as if they had been drained of any feelings. 

It must be remembered that the impact of disappearances is felt not only by the persons directly concerned, but by families, communities and the whole of society.

 What kind of support do these women need?  

© ICRC / ru-e-00501    
  Grozny. A woman showing photos of her missing son.    

These women need – and above all they are entitled – to know what has become of their loved one and everything must be done to help them in this respect, by enabling them to declare the disappearance of their relative, by explaining procedures to them, by supporting the steps they take to obtain aid, by informing them about the various stages of the process for tracing their missing relative, by assisting them throughout the process but especially at extremely trying times such as during registration of ante mortem data, the identification of mortal remains or the announcement of bad news. 

Not only has a close relative disappeared, but these women may also be experiencing, or have experienced, a conflict situation giving rise to other traumatic events such as displacement or threats to their life and physical violence. They must therefore be given support tailored to their needs; it is primarily up to the authorities of the State directly concerned to meet these women’s specific practical, financial, psychological and legal needs. Associations and family networks can likewise play a major role by providing these women and their community with collective support and by exerting pressure on politicians.


 What is the ICRC doing to help women who are suffering the long-term consequences of a near relative going missing?  


All too often the parties to a conflict make little effort to shed light on the fate of persons who have been reported missing and to help their families. The ICRC, acting on behalf of the victims and their families, tries to persuade the relevant authorities to fulfil their obligations in this respect. 

The ICRC frequently has to register information about missing persons and to conduct active searches in the place of the authorities, but it always asks the authorities to hold inquiries (and, if necessary, to set in motion exhumation and identification processes), to inform families and to return the mortal remains of the deceased once they have been identified. 

In order to place missing persons'wives in a better legal position, the ICRC issues certificates which they can produce in order to obtain welfare assistance or compensation. 

In the Balkans, the ICRC has published a particularly useful guide for women which informs them of all the legal and administrative procedures they have to follow in order to obtain support from the authorities after the disappearance of their husband or other member of their family.

When necessary, the ICRC can offer women not only psychological support but also ad hoc material assistance if they are in a precarious situation after the head of the household has gone missing. It can also sometimes provide individual psychiatric treatment, if it is needed.

Finally, the ICRC supports women who found associations or groups in order to strengthen their action vis-à-vis the authorities, to find mutual comfort and encouragement and to band together to overcome security concerns and the cultural or social barriers in their path.


 What more can be done to help women when a close relative has gone missing and to shed light on this person’s fate?  

© Nick Danziger / nb pictures for ICRC    
  'The day my husband went missing I began to write a journal,' says Olja, from Kosovo.    

The lack of political will on the part of the authorities concerned and a shortage of resources frequently prevent women from satisfying their legitimate need to know what has happe ned to their loved one. It is therefore correct to say that more must be done to support women who struggle every day with financial, legal and psychological difficulties and to assist them in their search for information about the fate of the missing person and in their quest for justice. This is the duty of the authorities, backed up if necessary by non-governmental organizations and the ICRC. 

But above all more must be done to prevent enforced disappearances. To this end, the ICRC deploys numerous activities in the thick of armed conflicts. When members of a family have lost contact with one another because normal communications have broken down, the ICRC offers them the possibility of getting back in touch by means of the Red Cross and Red Crescent family news network, by sending and receiving Red Cross messages, by placing mobile or satellite telephones at their disposal, or through the Internet.

When mass population displacements occur, the most vulnerable people, such as children who have been separated from their parents, are registered as quickly as possible and an attempt is made to trace their family. Visits to places of detention and the registering and monitoring of detainees likewise help to prevent disappearances. When the ICRC learns that someone has gone missing it tries to find out the circumstances in which their family has lost contact with them and initiates searches in all the places they might possibly be: hospitals, prisons, camps for displaced people and places of worship.

In all the places in which it is present the ICRC regularly reminds belligerents that they have a duty to adopt the necessary measures to prevent disappearances and it urges them to clarify the fate of missing persons. No effort must be spared to alleviate the anguish of the women and families who suffer the disappearance of a loved one.


  Legal frameworks: what the ICRC is doing to support the missing and their families

  The ICRC works with States to establish legal systems and frameworks – both national and international – aimed at preventing people from going missing and at helping missing persons and their families. For example, the ICRC actively supported the development of the Convention on the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance by providing legal and operational expertise, supporting the drafting process and submitting proposals, and lobbying actively for its adoption. The Convention on the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December 2006. The treaty stipulates specific measures that States must take to prevent enforced disappearances, obliges them to bring offenders to justice and entitles victims to reparation.

  At the national level, the development and promotion of legislation is an essential factor in addressing issues related to missing persons effectively and efficiently. Laws should include a wide range of provisions ranging from prevention of disappearances, ascertaining the fate of missing persons, ensuring the proper management of information and human remains to supporting the families of missing persons. The ICRC has prepared a model law, with an article-by-article commentary, to help States develop and adopt domestic legislation. It has also conducted compatibility studies, analysing the compatibility of national legislation with international obligations regarding missing persons, in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Guatemala, Indonesia, Peru and Timor-Leste.    

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