Syrian Women Must Have Leadership Roles in the Missing Persons Process

Idleb, Syria May 2020 – A wife holds the photo of her missing husband. The majority of those missing in the context of Syria are men, which means there are large numbers of women and children survivors who face multiple challenges and need sustainable support to overcome these. Photographer: Mohammad Khaddor

The Hague, 08 November 2020 – Syrian women whose family members are missing face multiple challenges and need sustainable support to overcome these, representatives of Syrian civil society organizations (CSOs) said in a series of discussion sessions recently organized by the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP).

The discussions with women-led CSOs focus on ways in which Syrian civil society and the international community can support Syrian women with missing relatives. The discussion sessions, financed by the United Kingdom, were held around 25 November, are part of a larger IMP program to engage and promote the active engagement of Syrian Civil Society in the missing persons process.

Over 100,000 persons are missing as a result of the current conflict in Syria, according to estimates cited by the UN in 2019.  In addition, Syria has a legacy of missing and disappeared persons cases linked to human rights abuses and other causes that occurred prior to the conflict, and Syrians who have fled the fighting have also gone missing along migratory routes.

Based on global trends regarding missing persons from conflict, human rights abuses and migration, and data collected by the ICMP from families of the missing in Syria, the majority of those missing in the context of Syria are men, which means there are large numbers of women and children survivors.

Participants in the discussion sessions highlighted the social, economic, legal and psychological challenges faced by Syrian women with missing family members. Because Syria’s traditional and legal system impedes women’s ability to access their rights, women with missing relatives often face difficulties in securing jobs and accessing services, and in tackling legal challenges related to custody of children, property and inheritance. Securing legal documentation is often an insurmountable challenge.

Women also often experience difficulties in engaging in the process of accounting for missing persons.

“Our role as CSOs is to transform families into partners who no longer are (passive) recipients of information, but active participants who can represent their own stories,” one participant said during a discussion session held online in November 2020.

Participants in the discussion sessions said they expect Syria’s protracted conflict to present women with missing relatives with changing and increasingly complex challenges and argued that quick action was needed. Women-led CSOs should strengthen their partnerships to better support women, and they should advocate for change in legislation that hinder women’s access to rights, they said.

In addition, the participants called for closer contacts between the Constitutional Committee and Syrian civil society to ensure that the issue of the missing is prioritized in negotiations. Participants in the discussion sessions underlined the need for targeted support. They welcomed opportunities offered by the international community, including ICMP, to learn about rights and develop skills to assert these rights.

Though most Syrians who go missing are men, women are also targeted in disappearances. The challenges they face were among topics discussed in a separate ICMP-facilitated seminar in which speakers noted that women who return home after having been missing often face stigma, sometimes so severe that they feel forced to leave their communities.

That event, also held in November with UK financial support, continued an ICMP-led process that provides a platform for Syrian CSOs and families to develop a shared vision on concrete measures that could be jointly undertaken to account for the missing. The first part of the process is summarized in the report Accounting or Missing Persons is an Investment in Peace: Policy Process with Syrian Civil Society Organizations and Families of the Missing, released in October 2020.

“The issue of missing persons affects women disproportionally,” ICMP Director-General Kathryne Bomberger said. “They must be actively supported to take on leadership roles to advance policies that will help a future Syria create a process that secures their human rights.”