Living with the Shadows of the Disappeared


In the brutality of armed conflict or tyranny of a repressive regime, many who go missing are never found again: whether “disappeared” by agents of the state or abducted by an armed faction, the whereabouts of thousands are still unknown to this day.

While men may comprise the majority of those who are disappeared, women are severely affected—directly, and indirectly. Because of gender inequalities that exist in society, women experience the devastating social, economic and psychological consequences of disappearances in different ways than men. Despite these challenges, many women victims of disappearances have emerged as survivors and activists.

On this International Day of the Disappeared, ICTJ recognizes that enforced disappearances constitute crimes against humanity, and they affect women in ways unique from the impact on men.

Transitional justice mechanisms seek to address legacies of disappearances: the families of the disappeared must have access to the facts about where were their loved ones taken, what happened and why. The state must respect victims’ rights to reparation, and those responsible must be held to account.

This week, ICTJ will look at the many dimensions of the impact of disappearances on women and others who are left behind through several new releases described below.

The Impact of Disappearances on Women

When men disappear, the lives of their spouses, families and loved ones can be turned upside down. In the wake of the loss of a father or husband—many times the bread-winner and head of the household—many women find themselves left to care for their children alone, forced to navigate legal, economic and other bureaucratic hurdles in sometimes hostile environments, and can face shaming or stigmatization from their own communities.

In countries like Colombia, Nepal, and Lebanon, the families of the disappeared—many times led by women—are engaged in an ongoing struggle to receive adequate reparation, for their stories to be recognized, and for justice to be done.

While the wives, mothers, and grandmothers of the disappeared have traditionally led the fight for truth and justice about their loved-ones, very little research has been conducted to understand the experiences of these women, or of women who are themselves disappeared.    
ICTJ recognizes that enforced disappearances constitute crimes against humanity, and they affect women in ways unique from the impact on men.

Led by our Gender Justice program, ICTJ is actively exploring how women are affected by enforced disappearances in order to understand how transitional justice mechanisms can better address their experiences.

In this podcast interview, ICTJ Gender Justice program Director Kelli Muddell shares her observations on the impact of disappearances on women around the world, and her work in transitional justice contexts such as Tunisia and Nepal.

“Often it’s the wives or mothers or sisters who are pursuing this fight for justice in the long term,” says Muddell. “And so they’re often left with trying to push authorities to acknowledge the disappearance, to try to find bodies, to try to establish the facts of the case. It’s the state’s responsibility to provide them with that truth, to locate the bodies of their loved ones, and to tell them what the fate was of those who had been disappeared.”

Muddell explains that women are also targeted for disappearance themselves, but the crime of abduction of women is often underreported.

“The disappearance of women often isn’t dealt with as seriously as the crime is against their male counterparts,” says Muddell. “Aside from cultural or structural inequalities, men are often reluctant to report the crime because they felt a sense of shame about the fact that they couldn’t protect their wives or daughters.”

Muddell notes that disappeared women are at a high risk for sexual violence and forms of torture specifically targeting women, and notes abductions in places such as Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, where hundreds of young women have been abducted, sexually tortured, and killed.

“There are systems that are misogynistic and don’t value the lives of women to the same degree that they value the lives of men,” she says.

Wives of the Disappeared in Nepal

In the past 10 years, Nepal has seen some of the highest reported numbers of disappearances in the world.

It is estimated that over 1,000 people were victims of enforced disappearance during Nepal's brutal armed conflict, which devastated the country from 1996 to 2006. The vast majority of the victims were young men with wives and families who, years later, are still seeking the truth about their loved ones while struggling to rebuild shattered lives.

In a new briefing paper, ICTJ documents the experience of the wives of the disappeared in Nepal and calls for measures to help end the poverty, social stigma, and legal limbo they face in their day-to-day lives.

The ICTJ paper, Beyond Relief: Addressing the Rights and Needs of Nepal’s Wives of the Disappeared, focuses attention on women in Nepal affected by the enforced disappearance of their husband and the continued effects of this chilling crime.

ICTJ is actively exploring how women are affected by enforced disappearances in order to understand how transitional justice mechanisms can better address their experiences.
    "Enforced disappearances have an immeasurable impact on the wives of victims. It places them in situations of extreme vulnerability, even as they live with the uncertainty and unresolved pain of losing their husband," says Lucia Withers, head of ICTJ’s Nepal Office.

The paper, based on interviews with over 450 wives of the disappeared across Nepal, highlights the precarious economic situation that often results from the loss of a husband, who is most often the family’s sole breadwinner.

Photographing the Shadows of the Disappeared

One single disappearance creates many victims: unanswered questions about the fate of one person can create a haunting reality of unknowing for whole families and communities.

Over the years, photographers have investigated the issue of the missing, and attempted to capture the grief, loss, and absence caused by disappearances.

To showcase the contribution of photography to the awareness about the impact of disappearances, we invited international award-winning photographers to present their work and tell us how the stories of the disappeared affected them.

In our photo gallery, photographers Susan Meiselas, Gervasio Sánchez, Rodrigo Abd, Marcelo Brodsky, Dalia Khamissy, Ziyah Gafic, and Mari Bastashevski have shared images from countries like Argentina, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Cambodia. The haunting photographs serve as a powerful reminder of the devastating impact of disappearances, in a way capturing the shadows of the missing which continue to inhabit the lives of those left behind.

Join us on social media as we discuss the issue of the disappeared: find us on Twitter with the hashtags #disappeared or #desaparecidos.

PHOTO: Amineh Hassan Banat (Imm Aziz) sits under the framed portraits of her four sons at the Bourj el Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon, 2010. They were all taken away by force in 1982 from their house by members of a militia. She never saw them again. From left to right, Ahmad (13), Mansour (22), Ibrahim (25) and Aziz (31). By Dalia Khamissy.