The Burden of Enforced Disappearances

Humanity has suffered since time immemorial in a variety of ways. Different acts of inflicting this suffering have been labelled and put into different categories according to the nature of crime and graveness of violation. What brings them all together is the common disregard for human life, emotions, relations and rights. Never does the impact of any such act of violence remain targeted on one individual. It has a bearing on several other individual lives – family, friends and relatives – and on the community at large. The phenomenon of enforced disappearances, then, is one of the worst crimes against a human life and one of the severest violations of human rights. 

Hundreds of thousands of men and women across the world have been victims of this practice since it was first recorded during the times of Adolf Hitler when he issued a decree to “make the enemies vanish without a trace”. Thereafter, several instances of enforced disappearances were recorded during the 1960s across regimes in Latin America and in the 1970s in Uruguay and Argentina. Since the 1980s, Sri Lanka, Guatemala and Colombia have recorded the highest number of cases of enforced disappearances. South Africa recorded hundreds of disappeared activists after they were detained by apartheid security forces. More recently in the 2000s, Nepal, Jammu and Kashmir and the successive al-Assad regimes in Syria have reported a number of fresh cases. Earlier seen as only a feature of military dictatorships, it has now been largely accepted as a global problem present in around 85 countries.

It is a crime of simple meaning, very literal in its sense. It has been defined in the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance as “The arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law.” The targets, also called ‘material victims’, are in most of the cases activists, human rights defenders, people working with social justice organizations, lawyers and individuals related to them. Reports and other evidences show that the targets are predominantly men and thus the number of women as material victims of enforced disappearances is small.

The reasons behind disappearances are not gendered but women have been targeted for specific reasons as well such as for participating in the public sphere in conservative societies. In some cases, pregnant women have been specifically targeted. Pregnant women face traumatic experiences and isolation from the outside world during a crucial moment of their lives. Many cases have recorded torture and degrading treatment thus keeping the women always in fear for themselves and their new born. Often, these women give birth in captivity, in places of poor hygienic conditions and without any medical support. In some cases, the babies are taken away immediately after birth and at times arbitrarily killed afterwards. Women, children and people with disabilities have also been at times solely targeted as they are related with those actually on the radar so as to hold leverage. Regardless of the motive behind any disappearance, the fate of the material victims remains under a shadow of the unknown – some are released after brutal torture, some are never released and are kept under the constant fear of being killed and some are killed.

Every disappearance violates a range of human rights of both the material victims and also of those associated with them. Unacknowledged and prolonged disappearance after secretive abduction and illegal detention often implies torture during interrogation followed by murder violating right to liberty, right to personal security, right to legal personality, right to equal protection under law, right to a legal counsel, right to a free trail, right to freedom from torture, right to humane treatment, right to dignity, right of presumption of innocence etcetera along with a deplorable attack on the moral integrity of the person.

The nature of the crime is such that it has an equally devastating impact on all those related in any manner to the material victim. This led the international community to identify all those who suffer any form of harm as the direct result of an enforced disappearance as victims of the crime along with the material victims. The worst affected are the family members of the victim, dealing with the unknown fate of their loved ones. The family and relatives of the disappeared have right to truth, right to freedom to seek, receive and impart information about the fate of the disappeared which are violated. Those who intervene to help and assist the victim and his or her relatives also suffer from harassment and constant threat to their life. A great impact is also left on the larger community the victim is a past of as everyone around slips into a state of constant fear. The paper will herein specifically try to bring to the fore the impact suffered by the women left behind to deal with a disappearance. 

Identification of family members and relatives of the material victims as victims of the crime as well has important implications for women who are the majority of those left behind to deal with the consequences of an act of enforced disappearance. Due to the deep rooted patriarchal constructions of the institutions of family and society and gender inequalities steeped in tradition, race, culture, religion, and class, women suffer from social, economic, and psychological consequences of disappearances differently than men. It is important to understand that these impacts are not divorced from each other and often overlap. For example, facing a financial crisis also takes a psychological toll on a person as well as impacts his or her social status.   

Most of the men who are subjected to an act of enforced disappearance hold the position of being the sole breadwinner for the family. Post disappearance, the financial burden, including that of meeting the daily expenses of the household, then is unexpectedly and suddenly on the women. This necessitates the women to take up employment, usually for the first time in their lives. Most of these women do not have the required skills, training, education and experience to enter into the organized workforce. Many women interviewed in the course of various research undertakings had thus taken up low paying jobs with no security. Some, for example, had also taken up sex work as a profession but, unaware of their rights and hazards involved, faced exploitation and unrelenting harassment at their workplace and were under constant risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases due to indulgence in unsafe practices.

Several narrative highlights the plight of earning meager incomes which coupled with problems such as price rise of essential commodities and services add to the helplessness of women and double their fragility. Some women also migrate to distant urban centres looking for opportunities to rebuild their lives which, at times, isolates them from possible community support. They have no means of accessing the variety of welfare schemes designed by governments for the poor. The narrative also reminds us that women take up financial responsibilities and the role of being the single head of household along with their traditional roles of childcare and doing household chores while also being at the forefront of the search for the disappeared which adds the risk of abuse, intimidation, persecution and violence extortion and manipulation. Several existing legislation and discriminatory laws and social practices coupled with limited access to and understanding of legal documents do not make it any easier for these women. Grieving wives and mothers are often reluctant to declare their husbands and sons dead and declaring their loved ones dead in order to claim monetary benefits comes at a huge legal, cultural and emotional cost. Under such circumstances, it becomes exceedingly difficult to obtain a death certificate after a prolonged period of disappearance. This also leads to issues around inheritance of property leading to dispossession and lack of access to pensions and bank accounts of the disappeared which if accessed can provide relief from financial hardships.  

In societies where gender-based discrimination in laws and policies hinders the full realization of the rights of women and limits their autonomy and participation in aspects of public and political life, the social impact of disappearances is felt more strongly and in turn renders women more vulnerable to exploitation and marginalization. Several stories of agony and distress come from women whose husbands had disappeared. These men have not yet been officially acknowledged as deceased and the families have no clue or leads so as ascertain their whereabouts. This situation is particularly problematic in the context of patriarchal societies, especially those in the East including South East Asia, where the social role and status of women is defined through their relations with men within the family. The women, now, face an identity crisis. They are expected by people around in the community to play the role of a widow on grounds that there is little hope of their husbands coming back. Some family members while not wanting to accept the possible harsh truth of their sons being dead, expect the women to play the role of an anticipating spouse. Both these roles are very unique and irreconcilable. They are labelled by the society as ‘half widows’ and their children as ‘half-orphans’. Many women narrated stories of emotional pain caused by shaming in public gatherings during cultural events or festivals as they are neither married, nor widowed, nor divorced which also hurts their self-esteem and brings down their self-confidence. Social stigmatization of wives due to such an identity crisis ranges from complete social isolation to suspicion over a woman being ‘single’ and therefore promiscuous.

Women were disappointed with not receiving any support from their community and the state and instead being ostracized and left to live in a state of “Kafkaesque social and legal limbo”. Wives of the disappeared also narrated instances of inter-familial harassment, resentment and societal isolation as with their husbands gone they are not accepted as a part of the family and treated as an economic burden. When turned out of the home by their in-laws, they struggle with homelessness and survive only with the help of handouts and charity. Many mothers also lose custody of their children as a result or in some cases have to take care of the children all by themselves. 

Arendt in his ‘The Origin of Totalitarianism’ says that “Real power begins where secrecy begins.” The most obvious way of providing relief to these women is to work towards putting the practice of enforced disappearance to an end. A major part of this would be dealing with the phenomena legally and judicially. All responsible parties need to be investigated and prosecuted so as to deliver justice and restore faith in the system. State authorities responsible for a disappearance must release information about the person and if dead, should provide details of where they died etcetera. All states must be pushed to constitute the International Convention as national law and build regional models to implement international law. 

Another level of dealing with the problem is to provide compensation, rehabilitation, restitution and reparation to all victims, as hoped for in the above narrative. Looking at the larger picture, resolution of gender specific violence will come with ending gender discrimination against women. Reports by international agencies have put forth several relevant and viable recommendations such as the call for a new legal category allowing relatives of the disappeared to access benefits, inherit wealth and property and dissolve marriages even without being forced to declare the disappeared as dead. (Butler, 2015) The rest of the family and the entire community around these women need to allow them to adopt a lifestyle which best suits them under the given circumstances and help them fulfil their new responsibilities port disappearance. That being said, like all who have lost their loved ones to situations of conflict or to war crimes, these women have always hoped for time to be a great healer of their pain and suffering. We could not hope for more.


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