International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances

UN Women Statement on the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances

Date: Tuesday, August 30, 2016

While no exact figures exist, the overwhelming majority of reported cases of disappearances are men. This means women make up the majority of those left behind to search, pick up the pieces and cope with the economic and emotional consequences of the disappeared. Indeed, it is precisely because men have been the primary victims of this crime that the gendered impacts of enforced disappearances have for so long remained unnoticed. However, recent research conducted by the International Center for Transitional Justice and supported by UN Women, reveals how female relatives of the disappeared in contexts as diverse as Kashmir and Guatemala experience social and economic discrimination as a result of, or aggravated by, the loss of a male family member. Women are taking the lead in movements to push for investigations and an end to impunity.

As we commemorate the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances this year, we celebrate women’s perseverance and strength under these circumstances, and mark several important gains in addressing this crime. The recent conclusion of a peace agreement between the Government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—People’s Army (FARC) includes an agreement specifically to address the question of the missing, calling for the establishment of a specialized unit to investigate the whereabouts of those disappeared. Similarly, with renewed efforts towards transitional justice in Sri Lanka, an Office of Missing Persons will be established to investigate the disappearance of more than 20,000 people in that country’s civil war. But more remains to be done to address the inequalities that underpin women’s experiences of human rights violations during conflict, including enforced disappearances.

Many states do not have legal categories that recognize the missing, meaning that women are forced to choose between giving up hope and declaring their husband or family member dead, or enduring daily administrative battles as a result of a system that does not recognize them. This can include struggles to access bank accounts in the name of the disappeared, obtain identity documents for children, retain custody of children, claim inheritance, and eventually perhaps to remarry. The emotional turmoil and uncertainty is compounded by material deprivation. Those who eventually choose to declare their husbands dead report feeling tremendous guilt and shame, and a sense that they are extinguishing the remaining vestiges of hope.

In response to this dilemma, Argentina, followed by countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Chile and Peru, has created a separate legal category of “absent by enforced disappearance”, which enables women to inherit property, hold title to land, and access the material support needed to rebuild their lives. Yet these gains are few in comparison to the number of new cases in this past year and the thousands of families that remain without truth, justice, or the means to cope with the impact of the disappearance of their loved ones.

UN Women stands in solidarity with the families of the disappeared, in particular with the grandmothers, mothers, wives and daughters across the globe, who have led the fight for answers, and whose enduring advocacy and pursuit of justice, accountability, truth and redress have placed a human face on hope and led to significant steps forward in addressing the gendered dimensions of this crime. With them we call for steps that can determine the fate of their loved ones and bring an end to impunity.