Bojana Djokanovic examines the different ways in which gender perspectives of enforced disappearance have an impact on women.
When faced with the disappearance of a missing loved one, in addition to emotional pain and the psychological anguish of not knowing the fate of a missing relative, women have to deal with the social, economic, legal and familial implications of these disappearances – and deal with these issues in circumstances that are often highly discriminatory.
Article 2 of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced
Disappearance (ICCPED) defines enforced disappearance as “…the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law.”  Media reports and other evidence indicate that the majority of people who go missing worldwide, especially in cases of armed conflict, are men. Consequently, the majority of those left behind are women. For instance, in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BIH), as specified in ICMP’s Missing Persons from the Armed Conflict of the 1990s: A Stocktaking, 32,152 people went missing in the conflict of the 1990s, of whom almost 87% were men. Globally, the numbers of enforced disappearances reflect this discrepancy between the genders. According to the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID),”…men comprise between 70 to 94 percent of those who have been disappeared globally”.
Despite the fact that men are globally the primary victims of enforced disappearance, there are vast ramifications for women survivors, their children, and society as a whole.
While the primary focus of this article is on women survivors, the number of women who go missing should not be disregarded. Some recent reports suggest that women and children are increasingly becoming targets of abductions and disappearances by military forces, and subject to torture, sexual violence, trafficking and child slavery. When women go missing, they experience the same, if not greater, levels of torture as men do and are much more likely to experience sexual violence and gender based violence. Gender based violence is both a cause and effect of discrimination against women.
The ICCPED identifies both the disappeared and those who have suffered harm as the direct result of an enforced disappearance as victims of the crime. This identification of surviving family members as direct victims of enforced disappearances has important implications for women and families who are left behind. The WGEID comments that women are affected by enforced disappearances in three ways: as forcibly disappeared people; as relatives of forcibly disappeared people; and as those suffering harm as a result of the forcible disappearance.  The International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) in a recent extensive publication on gender and the missing across 31 countries provides insight on the ramifications of enforced disappearances on women, listing eight principal effects:
- Women suffer serious, lasting harm after the disappearance of a male relative, who is often the family breadwinner;
- Women are generally at the forefront of the search for truth about the disappeared, which puts them at greater risk of abuse, extortion and manipulation;
- In some countries, the only way a woman can access bank accounts and property that are held in the name of the disappeared is to declare their loved one dead, though they are often reluctant to do so;
- In some cultures, wives of the disappeared lose social status because they are formally considered neither a “wife” nor a “widow”. Instead, they are ostracized, and left to live in a state of limbo;
- Wives of the disappeared may suffer inter-familial harassment and societal isolation if they are perceived as an economic burden on their family;
- Mothers may lose custody of their children when their husband is disappeared due to discriminatory laws or social practices;
- When the male breadwinner of the family is disappeared, wives are often forced to enter the workforce, sometimes for the first time. Without skills or experience, many women must take low-paid insecure jobs or risk exploitation, including through sex work; and
- Women who live with the repercussions of a disappeared loved-one are more likely to experience serious physical and mental health problems due to unequal access to healthcare. 
All of these are closely tied to and are a direct consequence of the patriarchal social order and its impact on the lives of women. The list also sheds light on the division of power within patriarchal societies. In patriarchal societies women largely remain within the private spheres of life, caring for the children and the elderly and doing household chores. They are allowed less freedom to participate actively in the public sphere or act as providers for the family. The role of breadwinner is generally allocated to men. When the male household member goes missing, women are forced to take on this role, in addition to ensuring that their own roles continue. The care of children and providing for the family, in addition to searching for their missing husbands, fathers and brothers, puts them under great pressure, and burdens them with additional responsibility. Lack of higher education and work training may mean that they can only seek employment in low skilled and low paid jobs. Further, lack of proper education and skills may limit their access to and understanding of legal documents.
Additionally, as explained in “Holding up the Photograph: Experiences of the Women Whose Husbands Were Forcibly Disappeared”, a report on the effects of enforced disappearances on women in Turkey, “women whose spouses have been forcibly disappeared are also in a position different from divorced or widowed women due to their social status and the responsibilities attributed to them by society. In the patriarchal system women’s social status is defined through their relations with men within the institution of the family….The women whose spouses have disappeared are neither ‘married’, nor ‘widows’, nor ‘divorced’. This uncertainty in some cases hinders both the definition of these women socially and legally, and their struggle to define their own identity.”
Ramifications also include further effects on children of the missing, as mentioned in the ICTJ publication. “Boys are often prioritized within the family for limited educational opportunities, older female siblings may be forced to drop out of school to care for siblings and, in Uganda, some girl children were married off as a means of economic survival.”  This in turn has additional impact on the lives of females and perpetuates the patriarchal social order in which girls are not prioritized when it comes to education and are, like their mothers, deprived of the status of educated and active participants in the public sphere. This continuous prioritization of male children over female children thus has implications for future generations.
Among the experiences of dealing with a missing relative which Kurdish women from Turkey have shared are the feeling of loneliness and the fact that they often had to go alone to search for answers from the authorities, which increased their vulnerability and risk. Language differences also proved to be a limiting factor for these women and increased their dependence on men who could help them. In addition, the effects of disappearances on children and the struggle for economic survival were experiences that these women found difficult to deal with. 
Recommendations made by family members of the missing to their Governments, society and international stakeholders do not differ in most of the countries that have been faced with a significant missing persons problem. These recommendations include calls for the creation of legal certification on enforced disappearances; recognition of families’ right to truth and justice and social rights; institutional reforms; and memorialization. 
In the UK, recent legislation has been introduced to help families deal with the economic implications when a family member goes missing, for example allowing immediate relatives to suspend direct debits for mobile phone and utility bills, or to make mortgage payments.
Recognizing that persons go missing for a variety of reasons, including armed conflict, terrorism, natural disasters, trafficking and migration, the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) has developed a holistic approach to resolving the missing persons issue. This approach addresses both the search and identification of those who went missing, as well as, providing assistance to the surviving family members in their search for their missing relatives, and in their efforts to secure access to justice and reparations, to arrange appropriate memorialization of those who have disappeared in violent circumstances, and to ensure that that governments take responsibility for the missing persons issue.
For nearly 20 years, ICMP has been working with civil society groups, mainly composed of and led by women, with a focus on education in legal rights and empowerment to become actively engaged as advocates in demanding answers from the authorities. In partnership with these groups, ICMP has been able to help governments to create domestic rule of law institutions solely tasked with the search for missing persons and to develop legislation tailored to meet the multiple legal challenges faced by surviving family members.
ICMP has also pioneered the use of new and effective methods to locate, recover and identify the missing, including the incorporation of DNA identification technology, and has provided scientific evidence and testimony at local and international war crimes trials. Surviving family members have played an important role in large scale DNA identification by voluntarily providing blood reference samples to be used in the identification of missing relatives. Without this, DNA-led identification of the missing would not be possible. Therefore, in addition to empowering and educating family members, ICMP has been able to include them directly in the search for and identification of their missing relatives, ensuring that they play a crucial role in the search and identification process. This may be viewed as an example of technological innovation – the effective application of DNA to identifying missing persons – indirectly having an impact (in this case a positive one) on the circumstances of women living with the legacy of enforced disappearance.
 International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced
Disappearance. Available at: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/ProfessionalInterest/disappearance-convention.pdf. Accessed on 27th March 2015
 International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP). “Bosnia and Herzegovina. Missing Persons from the Armed Conflicts of the 1990s:A Stocktaking”, available at: http://bit.ly/1BQLL6l, accessed on 2nd April 2015.
 U.N. Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, 98th session. General comment on women affected by enforced disappearances (Geneva: Official Record A/HRC/WGEID/98/2, 2013).2013:2, www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Disappearances/Pages/GeneralComments.aspx. Accessed on 27th March 2015
 Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/nigeria/11495208/Boko-Haram-abduct-500-women-and-children-in-Nigeria.html; http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/03/25/the-brutal-reason-boko-haram-just-took-500-young-women-and-children/;
 Dewhirst, Polly. and Kapur, Amrita: “The Disappeared and Invisible: Revealing the Enduring Impact of Enforced Disappearances on Women“, International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), 2015.
 Bozkurt, Hatice and Kaya, Ozlem: “Holding Up the Photograph: Experiences of the Women Whose Husbands Were Forcibly Disappeared”, Truth Justice Memory Center, Sena Ofset, 2014:74
 International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced
Disappearance. Available at: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/ProfessionalInterest/disappearance-convention.pdf
 U.N. Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, 98th session. General comment on women affected by enforced disappearances. (Geneva: Official Record A/HRC/WGEID/98/2, 2013). 2013:2 available at: www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Disappearances/Pages/GeneralComments.aspx. accessed on 27th March 2015
 Dewhirst, Polly and Kapur, Amrita. ”Eight Ways Women are Impacted by Disappearances“, available at https://www.ictj.org/news/eight-ways-women-are-impacted-disappearances. accessed on: 27th March 2015
 Bozkurt, Hatice and Kaya, Ozlem: “Holding Up the Photograph: Experiences of the Women Whose Husbands Were Forcibly Disappeared”, Truth Justice Memory Center, Sena Ofset, 2014
 Dylan Mazurana et al., Feinstein International Center and ISIS Women’s International Cross Cultural Exchange: “Making Gender-Just Remedy and Reparation Possible: Upholding the Rights of Women and Girls in Greater North Uganda” (2013), 53, fic.tufts.edu/publication-item/making-gender-just-remedy-and-reparation-possible/. In  Dewhirst, Polly. and Kapur, Amrita: „The Disappeared and Invisible: Revealing the Enduring Impact of Enforced Disappearances on Women“, International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ).2015.2., available at: https://www.ictj.org/publication/disappeared-and-invisible-revealing-enduring-impact-enforced-disappearance-women. Accessed on 27th March 2015
 Bozkurt, Hatice and Kaya, Ozlem. “Holding Up the Photograph: Experiences of the Women Whose Husbands Were Forcibly Disappeared”, Truth Justice Memory Center, Sena Ofset, 2014:32-50.
 Ibid. and Yakinthou, Christalla: “Living with the Shadows of the Past: The Impact of Disappearance on Wives of the Missing in Lebanon”, International Center for Transitional Justice, 2015. Available at: https://www.ictj.org/publication/living-shadows-past-impact-disappearance-wives-missing-lebanon. Accessed on 27th March 2015.
 Available at: http://www.yorkpress.co.uk/news/11878265.New_law_to_support_families_of_missing_people_welcomed/. Accessed on: 26th March 2015.