Female Survivors of the Missing Work Hard to Assert their Rights

Statement by ICMP Director-General Kathryne Bomberger

On the Occasion of International Women’s Day, 8 March 2018

Events will take place around the world today to mark the progress that women have made in asserting their social, political and economic rights. There will be recognition too for those who fought to ensure that in many countries around the world women exercise their basic human rights. Yet, we must not forget those fields and countries where women still have to struggle against the odds, and this is especially relevant when it comes to the issue of disappeared and missing persons.

In conflict and other scenarios, a majority of those who disappear are male, which means that single female heads of household have to struggle on their own to access their rights and the rights of their children – the right to effective investigations and due process, the right not to be subjected to torture and degrading treatment, the right to a family life and to recognition as a person before the law.

Families of the disappeared are routinely discouraged or prevented from, for example, accessing pensions, inheritance, the financial support that states provide to veterans and some victims of conflict, the provision of education and health care, and much more.

Many of these families live in traditional and patriarchal communities and countries where, because of their sex, women do not enjoy full civil rights. Some belong to minority religions or minority ethnic communities. Many of the women left to look after families on their own have themselves been the subject of gross human rights violations.

Theirs is a struggle that deserves to be acknowledged today.

The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) has worked with families of the missing for more than 20 years, and it has developed a unique insight on the plight of women whose relatives have disappeared.

Founded in 1996 to help the authorities in former Yugoslavia locate and identify 40,000 people who were missing as a result of the conflict there, ICMP spearheaded an effort that made it possible to account for more than 70 percent of these people, including 7,000 of the 8,000 victims of the Srebrenica Genocide.

Accounting for the missing is an indispensable element of good governance and a prerequisite for maintaining public trust, whether in the wake of conflict or disaster, or in dealing with legacies of lawlessness and human rights abuses.

A viable strategy requires the cooperation of the authorities, the development of institutional and legislative programs, the application of state-of-the-art forensic science, and the comprehensive participation of families of the missing.

On International Women’s Day I believe it is important to draw attention to this last element.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina it was the Mothers of Srebrenica who galvanized domestic and international action to account for their missing men. It was the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina who forced the authorities to prosecute those guilty of crimes committed during the country’s dictatorship. And in Indian Administered Kashmir, activists such as Parveena Ahanger, who founded the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, have spent more than two decades mobilizing support for families of the missing and lobbying the authorities to conduct effective investigations.

Today, ICMP is working throughout the world to support a sustained and effective effort to account for those who have gone missing as a result of war, human rights abuse and forced migration. It is helping family organizations to support one another and to lobby authorities effectively. Many of these organizations are led by women – women who have responded to the loss of their loved ones by taking action, women who have refused to be silent in the face of injustice.

Imagine these women entering a police station or a court or a local government office. Imagine the courage and determination that is required of them when they speak up for themselves and for their children.

This is courage and determination that should be recognized not just on International Women’s Day but every day of the year.