Women with Missing Relatives: Recognizing the Plight of Those Left Behind
Tuesday, March 18, 2008 4:11 PM

Since the vast majority of those who are killed or disappear are men, the burden of trying to find out what happened to them usually falls to the women in their family. On International Women's Day (8 March), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) highlights its commitment to easing the plight of these women.

Ashwak, an Iraqi refugee now living in Jordan, has lost track of her husband. "We looked everywhere. We went to all the prisons and the forensic institute. We searched for more than four months," she says. "We looked in all the places we could think of, but we always received the same answer - that he was not there. Yet we still have hope."

For those who are left behind like Ashwak, not knowing the fate of a relative is emotionally devastating. No matter how difficult it is to mourn the loss of a loved one, it is even more distressing not to be able to mourn at all. Many women spend years and their life’s savings on a fruitless search. For those trying to trace a missing child, husband or father, peace in their country does not automatically bring peace of mind, because abandoning their quest would seem like a betrayal.

The missing person is often the family’s breadwinner or the sole owner of property. Women who lack skills and training are therefore left destitute and are often poorly prepared to take his place. In addition, the undefined legal status of a missing person's spouse or descendants can have an effect on property rights, guardianship of children, inheritance and the possibility of remarriage.

"On International Women's Day this year we want to draw attention to the particular plight of women whose male relatives have gone missing", says Florence Tercier, who heads the ICRC's programme to help women in war. "Everything possible must be done to prevent disappearances and to provide the women left behind with the support they need."

All too often the parties to an armed conflict make little effort to shed light on the fate of missing persons. The ICRC, acting on behalf of the victims and their family, endeavours to remind the relevant authorities of their duty in this respect. Together with the National Red Cross/Red Crescent Societies it accepts tracing requests from families who have had no news from their relatives during armed conflicts and tries to locate these persons by all possible means. The ICRC issues attestations to wives of the missing to enable them to claim welfare assistance and compensation. Depending on the needs and situation of the women and girls left behind, it also offers material support and psychosocial counselling.

Women prove to be resourceful and courageous in contending with the challenges they face when a loved one goes missing. They found associations many of which are supported by the ICRC and fight to obtain information. In many countries, the mothers, wives, grandmothers, sisters and daughters of the disappeared continue to exert pressure on the authorities long after a conflict has ended. For example, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina organized demonstrations for many years to demand answers from the government about the fate of their missing children.

For further information, please contact:
Anna Schaaf, ICRC Geneva, tel +41 22 730 2271 or +41 79 217 3217

Published in: Women with Missing Relatives: Recognizing the Plight of Those Left Behind, Rress Release, International Committee of the Red Cross, 5 March 2008.