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Enforced Disappearances: The Search for Justice Often Has a Woman's Face

Enforced disappearances are among the cruelest of crimes. To the kidnapping, torture, and in many cases, murder of the victim, perpetrators intentionally create fear and uncertainty about the fate of the missing person. There are tens of thousands of families around the world whose loved ones were picked up by security forces or armed groups never to be heard from again. Although men are predominantly targeted, the impact on women is severe and lasting. On this International Day of the Disappeared, we highlight the specific harms suffered by women in these crimes, which must be understood and recognized if they are to be accounted for and addressed.

Women themselves have been victims of enforced or involuntary disappearances in many places, from Latin America to Bosnia and Herzegovina to the ongoing tragedy in Syria. Although the perpetrators' motives may vary, the plight of those forcefully taken from their homes, often not to be seen alive again, is a common one.

Where women themselves are not the direct targets of this heinous crime, they face specific hardships, economic and social, in rebuilding their life and caring for their family, even as they grapple with the emotional trauma of having lost a loved one and searching for answers, for weeks or years. This uncertainty stretches into a sometimes paralyzing limbo of not knowing if their loved ones are still alive or dead and the circumstances surrounding their death and what has happened to their body.

Despite the obligation of states to provide families with reliable information about the fate of the disappeared, the burden of seeking the truth in these cases most often falls on women, as does the quest for justice. Who today does not know about the heroism of the mothers of Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, who marched by the hundreds in white headscarves, carrying photographs of their missing relatives in the wake of the "Dirty War" to protest the government's refusal to disclose information about their whereabouts? Or the mothers of Srebrenica who are tireless in their struggle to find the remains of their husbands, brothers, fathers, and sons and bring their killers to justice? The face of the truth seeker for the disappeared is usually a woman's face.

However, the victimization of women in cases of enforced or involuntary disappearances goes further. In seeking to ensure their rights, they must navigate bureaucratic systems and interact with authorities they have often never dealt with before it. They may have to travel long distances to register their loved one at a municipal office, or meet with lawyers, or make the rounds at prisons and police stations asking for information. In our research, we have found this leaves women vulnerable to additional abuses, like harassment, extortion, and discrimination, at the hands of authorities and others wishing to take advantage of their plight.

In a number of societies, the wives of the disappeared can suffer additional social stigmatization. Because they are considered neither "wives" nor "widows," they can find themselves in a Kafkaesque social and legal limbo. For example, in Nepal stigmatization can range from complete social isolation to suspicion over a woman being "single" and therefore promiscuous. In some contexts, there is resentment from families and in-laws. In Lebanon, wives of the disappeared may be prevented from obtaining passports for themselves or their children by their in-laws, so as not to be perceived as leaving the husband's family and starting a new life when his death is not confirmed.

One of the more significant issues ICTJ discovered early on in our work in Nepal was that the government's relief program for conflict victims originally provided an additional sum of money to the wives of men who were killed, but not to the wives of the disappeared. This forced many women into a dilemma in which they had to declare their husband dead in order to claim a monetary benefit, though there are strong legal, cultural, and emotional costs to doing this.

The financial impact of an enforced disappearance on families cannot be underestimated. For women, the negative effects range from dispossession, to lack of access to pensions, to discriminatory inheritance laws. In many cases, finding a reliable source of income to feed their family becomes an enormous challenge, usually further exacerbated by situations of inequality where women don't have the same employment and earning opportunities as men.

In a number of contexts, the specific harms suffered by women in cases of disappearances have been addressed through transitional justice measures. For example, in Argentina, a law was created on the status of persons "absent by reason of disappearance," and laws were enacted governing the legal implications of that status. In Morocco, the government originally determined the amount of compensation to be paid to women whose husbands were disappeared in the 1970s and 1980s using traditional shari'a-based inheritance laws, but then later remedied inequities caused by this approach by applying international legal standards for reparations, which recognize that women should be treated equally.

Such approaches can open an avenue for thousands of women in their struggle to fulfill their rights to justice, inheritance, reparations, and truth. These are positive steps to build on to ensure that transitional justice mechanisms address these injuries and losses in the array of contexts in which disappearances occur.

Alongside the specific harms they suffer, we must also recognize the immense contribution that women have made to the struggle for truth and justice for the disappeared. From Buenos Aires to Beirut, from Lima to Kathmandu, their activism has raised the international profile of the issue of the disappeared and helped shed light on these sinister crimes.

On this International Day of the Disappeared, we thus shine the spotlight on them, their suffering and their heroism.