In the Global Context of Missing and Disappeared Persons, Women are Victims and Survivors

The Hague, 8 March 2022: As world attention is captured by the escalating conflict in Ukraine, it is important to highlight a major consequence of war and a grave human rights violation: missing and disappeared persons.  This issue has a particular impact on women.

The images from Ukraine, mirror those from Syria, the former Yugoslavia, Colombia and many other areas where conflict is ongoing or has taken place around the world: women and children are forced to flee their homeland, while mostly men stay behind to fight.  This results in a higher number of deaths among men and a higher number of men who go missing, or are disappeared, either as a result of the conflict or from human rights abuses, or both.  And this, in turn, means that women constitute the majority of survivors.

Women are also targeted as victims of abductions and disappearances by military forces, and subject to torture, sexual violence, trafficking and child slavery. According to the United States Office for Victims of Crime, of the 600,000-800,000 people trafficked across international borders each year, 70 percent are female. 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.  Witness the high incidence of femicide in parts of Mexico, the targeting of Yazidi women by ISIS in Iraq, the targeting of women and girls in West Africa by Boko Haram and, historically, the abuse of women and girls, often through systematic sexual violence, in circumstances of conflict and repression around the world.

The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) has documented this phenomenon, particularly in the context of its work in helping the countries of the former Yugoslavia to account for 75 percent of the 40,000 persons missing from the conflicts of the 1990s, including almost 90 percent of those executed in the 1995 Srebrenica Genocide.  Not only were an unprecedented number of persons accounted for, this was – in terms of missing and disappeared persons – an extraordinary and comprehensive conflict-documentation.  Uniquely, the countries of the Western Balkans – former belligerents – came together to launch and sustain an effective missing persons process based on mass comparisons between DNA extracted from unidentified human remains and DNA donated by family members through blood samples. Among other things, ICMP has shown conclusively, through DNA evidence, that 87 percent of all missing persons from the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina er\zegovina Herwere men.  This appears to be consistent with the ratio seen in other parts of the world.

What does this mean for female survivors? In ICMP’s experience, women survivors are often stigmatized; also, they are continuously marginalized, and this could be why the issue of missing and disappeared persons has, historically, been a silent one. However, in recent times, women-led organizations have become more powerful. Organizations such as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, the Women of the Zepa and Srebrenica Enclaves in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Yazidi CSO Nadia’s initiative, established by Nobel prizewinner Nadia Murad, and other groups have resolutely pursued the rights for all missing persons to justice, truth and reparations.

As the world marks International Women’s Day, it is important to highlight the consequences of this heinous human rights violation and to support the women around the world who suffer because of it. Accounting for the missing and supporting the women who bravely take on this cause is central to peace and stability.

For 25 years, ICMP has worked 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 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 is a treaty-based intergovernmental organization with Headquarters in The Hague, the Netherlands. Its mandate is to secure the cooperation of governments and others in locating missing persons from conflict, human rights abuses, disasters, organized crime, irregular migration and other causes and to assist them in doing so. It is the only international organization tasked exclusively to work on the issue of missing persons. ICMP’s next Global Report will focus on the role of gender in the context of missing and disappeared persons.