Asian women deal with the disappearances of loved ones

Lack of answers is empowering those in search of disapppeared loved ones to find each other and fight for justice
Asian women deal with the disappearances of loved ones

A Filipino woman who lost a son in the government's anti-narcotics war joins a protest in Manila on March 24. (Photo by Jire Carreon)

Purple is the color for women in March. The color signifies passion, suffering, grief, and sadness.

Images of the Our Lady of Sorrows, The Blessed Mother in search of her son Jesus, wear purple. Even the suffering Christ is usually depicted during Holy Week wearing a purple robe.

During March, when International Women's Day is observed, we commend all the women who are God's partners in the noble process of creation.

Amidst creation's inherent beauty, however, are the ugliness and roughness of the world of women who suffer discrimination in many societies, death during pregnancy, sexual violence, displacement, and even enforced disappearances.

These are all sources of ugliness in this supposedly beautiful world of women.

Women take the strain of the consequences of enforced disappearances and other forms of human rights violations. With having their loved ones disappear or being disappeared themselves, women are victimized.

A United Nations study on involuntary disappearances notes the various effects of the phenomenon on women and girls due to gender roles that are deeply embedded in history, tradition, religion and culture.

In the Philippines, women like missing students Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeno were disappeared. A witness testified in court that the women "were hung upside down and pieces of wood inserted into their private parts."

In Timor-Leste, Isabelinah Pintu, whom soldiers took to Indonesia, painfully recounted how her stepfather sexually abused her and how her stepmother beat her during her captivity.

Now an adult, she is one of the "stolen children" who have been found and reunified with their biological familiesin Timor-Leste. The scars remain indelible to children like her who suffered the same because of their disappearance.  

Testimonies of witnesses and survivors show that women who are forcibly disappeared are subject to gender-based violence. Some of those who live to tell their stories speak of suffering forced impregnation and social stigma that are "re-traumatizing" for those who supposedly need society's solidarity.

In Asian countries, the faces of women family members of the disappeared can be seen in the persons of Edita Burgos who lost her son, Jonas (Philippines), Sandhya Exnaligoda who lost her husband, Prageeth (Sri Lanka), Amina Masood who lost her husband, Masood (Pakistan), and Shui meng Ng, who lost her husband, Sombath (Laos).

Destructive is their emotional catastrophe caused by the uncertainty of loss, possibility of death, absence of closure, betrayal of state actors.

Especially for women whose poverty is exacerbated by the disappearance of breadwinners, nothing can be more painful than losing their loved ones due to enforced disappearance.

At the fourth Station of the Cross this Holy Week, Jesus supposedly met his mother. But uncertainty continues to haunt women in search for their disappeared.

Wives of the disappeared in some countries are called "half widows" — neither wives nor widows. There is physical absence, but there is no proof of death.

Exacerbating their unclear status is that they cannot legally claim whatever is left from their husbands. Presumption of death, but without investigation, reduces these women into citizens whose rights to truth and justice are ignored.

Seeds of hope sprout and grow as these women link arms in their common pain, in their collective search for the truth, and in their shared struggle for elusive justice.

Their empowerment is a potent tool to bring them closer to the attainment of truth and justice, with their endless hope against hope that once again, their disappeared loved ones will finally be returned.

Mary Aileen Bacalso is secretary-general of the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances. For her commitment to the cause of the disappeared, the government of Argentina awarded her the Emilio Mignone International Human Rights Prize in December 2013.

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