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Women turn grief into courage

On International Women's Day, remember those who bear the brunt of the catastrophic consequences of enforced disappearance

Mary Aileen D. Bacalso, Manila

Mary Aileen D. Bacalso, Manila

Published: March 08, 2021 04:11 AM GMT

Updated: March 08, 2021 06:05 AM GMT

Women turn grief into courage

A woman waves a green flare during a demonstration to demand greater rights for women in front of the National Congress in the Dominican Republic on March 7, the eve of International Women's Day. (Photo: AFP)

International Women’s Day is being commemorated today in the context of the coronavirus pandemic in which thousands of women have lost their loved ones. This year’s significant occasion coincides with the third Monday of Lent, thus reminding us of the purple -wearing Blessed Virgin Mary, the “Madre Dolorosa,” who in the Fourth Station of the Cross was met by her son Jesus on his way to crucifixion. The Blessed Virgin felt a pain so excruciating that only a mother like her could empathize.

Millions of women the world over suffer from discrimination, abuse, poverty, gender-based violence and human rights violations, of which enforced disappearance is one of the most cruel forms. Enforced disappearance, which motivated the international community to establish the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, especially affects women. 

On this significant occasion, I remember the faces and voices of women I personally encountered from 50 countries that I visited during my almost three decades of advocacy for the cause of the disappeared. Many of them carried pictures of their loved ones. Some gave me every bit of information with the hope against hope to find light amidst the dark night of the disappeared.

In varying ways, they bear the brunt of the catastrophic consequences of enforced disappearance. There were those who themselves disappeared. Some were pregnant when they disappeared and gave birth in captivity and their babies were also stolen. There are many whose children, mothers, brothers and sisters were the ones victimized by enforced disappearances. And there are daughters whose mothers and/or fathers disappeared. 

While purple signifies sorrow and suffering, it also means justice and dignity, self-esteem and honor. Many of these women refuse to accept the status of victimization and, on the contrary, they metamorphose from victims into human rights defenders. They have turned their pain into courage for the realization of truth and justice.

Innumerable stories of women victimized by the menace of enforced disappearance cry out to be told. On the eve of International Women’s Day, I chatted with a few women with whom I have forged friendships during my advocacy for the world’s desaparecidos.

Shui Meng Ng, the wife of disappeared Lao development worker Sombath Somphone, said that for the wives of the disappeared, instead of celebrating the day with their husbands and families, the day is another reminder of their loss.

“’Women hold up half the sky,’ so says a Chinese saying. For the wives of the disappeared, they have little choice but for them to hold up the entire sky for their families. Not only must they bear the pain and sorrow of losing their husbands but they must also shoulder the responsibility of keeping their families together economically, socially, and emotionally,” Shui Meng said.

It has been more than eight years since the disappearance of Sombath. Sadly, global pressure to ferret out the truth about his disappearance and return him to his family miserably failed. 

Shui Meng’s sister in pain and struggle, Angkhana Neelaphaijit of Thailand, whose lawyer husband Somchai Neelaphaijit disappeared 17 years ago, had similar emotions. 

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"In the past 17 years, I have tried very hard to attain justice. But it is getting even harder. It looms as an insurmountable obstacle for an ordinary person like me to attain justice and the rule of law in Thailand. No one knows how painful and traumatic the experience can be to bear witness to the fact that a person who had done so much for many people cannot be bestowed with a graveyard,” Angkhana said.

“I want to extend my solidarity with all women family members of the disappeared. Let us fight until the end to reach out for truth and justice in the midst of violence and intimidation. No one is too small to live with honor and dignity. Though the wounds in our hearts are invisible and untouchable, they tell us stories of injustices, trauma, pains inflicted on us. We shall fight for justice. Amidst losses and pains, through the course of our fight, we have woven our fabric of friendship, solidarity and mutual sympathy, something that will certainly last forever.”

In Pakistan, the wife of Masood Ahmed Janjua, who disappeared in 2005, said families of the disappeared should pay tribute to the struggle of women family members and take it as an opportune occasion to raise their voices for their disappeared loved ones and repeat the nagging question to governments: Where are our loved ones?

In the Philippines, Melvin Rabelista, whose brother Teddy Rabelista disappeared in 1983 at the peak of martial law, recalled that her beloved brother disappeared under the Marcos dictatorship. 

“The state wanted to silence him because he sided with the oppressed. Every International Women’s Day is an occasion for me to strengthen my commitment to support the fight against involuntary disappearances in whatever way I am capable of doing,” Melvin said.

Mariela Sr-Coline Fanon was kidnapped when she was two days old. (Photo: Renaud Masson)

A weapon of war

A woman from far-distant Guatemala where 45,000 disappeared, Mariela Sr-Coline Fanon, president of the foundation Racines Perdues (Lost Roots), shared her first-hand experience.

“I was born in Guatemala in 1986. I was kidnapped when I was two days old, locked up for 11 months and sold under the guise of international adoption. I found my birth family. When some countries were at war, children went missing — stolen children, children declared dead and sold — a vast trafficking in human beings which also includes adoption. Snatching children was used as a weapon of war besides the money it brought in. I wrote a book about it, Mom, I am Not Dead."  

These five women are among the thousands upon thousands of those affected by this scourge. Their situation prompted the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (UNWGEID) to adopt in 2012 a general comment which states: “Particularly, gender equality and the empowerment of women are essential tools to address the situation that women victims of enforced disappearances face.”

The document further states “that women play a fundamental role in securing and advancing the rights of disappeared persons. In particular, from its experience, the working group recognizes that women are often at the forefront of the struggle against enforced disappearances.”

As the world is confronted with the coronavirus pandemic, families of the disappeared are one of the most vulnerable sectors. Hence, UNWGEID and the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances adopted key guidelines on Covid-19 and enforced disappearances, a document which provides utmost consideration to the situation of women and children.

With continuing empowerment of women victimized by enforced disappearances, pain is turned into courage, and courage turned into concrete victories in the global fight for a world where no woman will ever ask again the same question: Where are you?

Mary Aileen D. Bacalso is president of the International Coalition Against Enforced Disappearances (ICAED). The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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