Updated: March 09, 2023 10:56 AM GMT
Families of victims of enforced disappearances display photographs of their missing loved ones in Manila on All Souls' Day in 2017. (Photo by Rob Reyes/ UCAN files)
This day reminds us of all women around the world, whose situation, due to the deeply embedded inequality and discrimination, pushed the drafting and adoption of one of the nine core international human rights treaties — the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) — in 1979 by the UN General Assembly.
An important inroad into women’s struggle against inequality and discrimination, the CEDAW came into force on Sept. 3, 1981. Its full implementation, however, remains a challenge.
Women family members of the disappeared are among the millions of women worldwide who suffer, in many ways, from various forms of human rights violations.
Women are victimized by enforced disappearance in two ways.
First, they are themselves made to disappear. Many testimonies of these victims say that they were sexually abused in secret detention and the pregnant women were made to deliver their babies who were taken away from them. Born in captivity, their children have likewise enforced disappeared when they were stolen and sold for adoption.
Second, women are victimized by this heinous crime when their loved ones are forcibly disappeared. Grandmothers, mothers, daughters, and sisters of the disappeared are part of the category of victims provided for in the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.
"Etched on their faces is a grief beyond description and hope that one day, they would see their disappeared loved ones again"
The decades-long occupation of Jammu and Kashmir by the Indian military has resulted in approximately 8,000 enforced disappearances. Having visited the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir thrice prior to my deportation by India in 2014, I had many opportunities to meet many female family members of desaparecidos.
During those visits, I met them both in the office of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons and in their homes. They are among the 1,500 half-widows in Kashmir, according to the report, "Half-Wife, Half-Widow."
Swinging between hope and despair, they showed me pictures of their disappeared loved ones and every piece of document of their children’s disappearance. Etched on their faces is a grief beyond description and hope that one day, they would see their disappeared loved ones again.
Neither widows due to a lack of proof of the death of their husbands nor wives because of their husbands' enforced disappearance these half-widows are financially hard up. If they do odd jobs, they are labeled as prostitutes.
Ineligible for pensions and government relief, these women are confronted with severe economic hardship as they play the role of mothers and fathers to their children. In some situations, due to their parents-in-law’s economic incapacity to support them, these women are returned to their biological families — a situation that does not respond to their already miserable state.
Stigmatization is faced by these women especially when they search for their disappeared loved ones because these acts are considered a digression from gender roles. Often, they suffer in silence as they have little or no access to government services, especially psychosocial help.
In a psychosocial accompaniment session of the Association of Family Members of the Disappeared, entitled “Healing Wounds, Mending Scars,” these women profoundly expressed their common sufferings due to an uncertain loss, their difficult struggle to make both ends meet, their longing for truth and justice and their thirst for solidarity.
This was followed by another event, entitled “From Victims to Healers,” and a series of smaller events, entitled “Cycle of Healing.” The dearth of resources, however, poses a major challenge in sustaining these important events and making these accessible to as many women family members of the disappeared as possible.
The same emotional and psychological trauma, economic dislocation, stigmatization, and powerlessness are likewise suffered by women family members of the disappeared in Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and several other Asian countries where enforced disappearances continue to remain the order of the day.
In another corner of the world, Argentina, several pregnant women were made to disappear, made to do forced labor, and tortured in detention during the period of military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983 in the country. They delivered their babies in a basement of the former school of the navy, the Escuela de Mecanica de la Armada, now turned into a memorial human rights museum to preserve the memory of victims of the dictatorship.
"It is also important to celebrate the heroism of many who chose never to remain in a state of victimhood"
Having fed their babies with colostrum, these women were considered trasladadas or transferred, a euphemism for death as they were taken by death flights that threw them into the ocean and never to be found.
These are but a microcosm of the sufferings of millions of women and family members in many countries where enforced disappearances are a reality. Yet on this International Women’s Day, as we remember their painful situation, it is also important to celebrate the heroism of many who chose never to remain in a state of victimhood but have transcended and transformed themselves into human rights defenders.
The Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, now in their 80s and 90s, continue to hold rallies in Plaza de Mayo, a square fronting the presidential palace, to demand the return of their children. They continue to chant: “Alive, they were taken away from us, alive, they have to be returned to us.”
In the preamble of the general comment on women affected by enforced disappearances adopted by the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances adopted in 2012, the Working Group states: “In particular, from its experience, the Working Group recognizes that women are often at the forefront of the struggle against enforced disappearances.”
Shui meng Ng from Laos, whose husband disappeared in front of a police station in Vientiane on Dec. 15, 2012, is one of the most indefatigable women family members of the disappeared that I have ever met. For a decade now, hand in hand with civil society organizations, she has been knocking on doors of government authorities, foreign embassies, and the United Nations to demand the return of her husband, development worker, Sombath Somphone. She vows to continue doing till truth and justice are achieved.
For almost 16 years now, Edita Burgos, at 79, perseveres in finding justice for her beloved son, Jonas, who disappeared on April 28, 2007. She has used all legal and meta-legal means in the process and has faced threats and intimidation. For the love of her son, no amount of persecution has stopped her from pursuing the elusive victory.
Shui meng and Edita, who call themselves sisters in pain and in struggle, will join hundreds of human rights defenders in the Third World Forum on Human Rights to be held in the former ESMA, in Buenos Aires, Argentina to be held on March 20-24, 2023.
Argentina is the most powerful place I have ever visited in the struggle against enforced disappearances. These two women both look forward to embracing the many other women family members of the disappeared in Argentina — a country which is, on one hand, notorious for its dark history of enforced disappearances yet on the other hand, is famous for their victories in facilitating the prosecution of nine military commanders involved in enforced disappearances during the dictatorship, in the ongoing trials of alleged perpetrators and in finding stolen children given away for adoption when their mothers were killed.
As the international community commemorates International Women’s Day, we pay tribute to all the women of the world. Having spent decades of my life with family members of the disappeared, most of whom are women, I especially pay homage to women family members of the disappeared who, despite the emotional, psychological, mental, social, and economic devastation brought about by enforced disappearance, they rise above violence, cruelty, and impunity and have chosen the path less trodden — the road to truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-repetition.
Women of the world, UNITE! “The day we stop burning with love, people will die of the cold.”
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.